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Roland Barthes’ Concept of Mythologies

By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on March 21, 2016 • ( 1 )

Differing from the Saussurean view that the connection between the signifier and signified is arbitrary, Barthes argued that this connection, which is an act of signification, is the result of collective contract, and over a period of time, the connection becomes naturalised. In Mythologies  (1957) Barthes undertook an ideological critique of various products of mass bourgeoise culture such as soap, advertisement, images of Rome, in an attempt to discover the “universal” nature behind this. Barthes considers myth as a mode of signification, a language that takes over reality. The structure of myth repeats the tridimensional pattern, in that myth is a second order signifying system with the sign of the first order signifying system as its signifier.

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Barthes illustrates the working of myth with the image of a young negro soldier saluting the French flag, that appeared on the cover of a Parisian magazine — where the denotation is that the French are militaristic, and the second order signification being that France is a great empire, and all her sons, irrespective of colour discrimination faithfully serve under her flag, and that all allegations of colonialism are false. Thus denotations serve the purpose of ideology, in naturalising all forms of oppression into what people think of as “common sense”. The most significant aspect of Barthes’ account of myth is his equation of the process of myth making with the process of bourgeoise ideologies.

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Roland Barthes: Myths We Don’t Outgrow

By Marco Roth

Roland Barthes Myths We Dont Outgrow

Perhaps the best way to understand what drove Roland Barthes, then a thirty-nine-year-old professor of literature, to begin writing the series of short essays later published as “Mythologies” is to take a brief glance at the myth of the supposedly decadent influence of French theory on American intellectual life. “He’d met Roland Barthes, at a dinner party, and been converted, over cassoulet, to the new faith,” goes a line about a Brown semiotics professor in Jeffrey Eugenides’s recent novel, “The Marriage Plot.” It’s a sentence that both describes and reënacts the mysterious process by which an essayist and literary critic who would have “interrogated” that dish of duck fat, beans, and sausage, demanding to know what it thought it was doing at his dinner party, somehow came to be seen as just another aspect of the stereotypical Frenchness he’d set out to unmask as a repressive fraud.

Anyone who reads Barthes on the myth of steak frites, or the recipes in nineteen-fifties Elle magazines—“A peasant dish is admitted only on occasion as the rustic whim of blasé city folk”—will immediately understand that the American professor is one more dupe of a consumer mentality that leads us to haplessly confuse our gastronomic, religious, and intellectual experiences of other cultures. An interest in the writing of a gay professor of rhetoric, born to a protestant family on France’s Atlantic seaboard, ought not to be conflated with a taste for Provençal cooking; neither should the lure of French theory be assimilated to the grand tourist’s reverence for the mysteries of Notre Dame or Chartres. That is to say, it’s a good thing we still have Barthes to help us understand what’s always at risk of happening to writers like Barthes.

A new, unabridged edition of “Mythologies,” translated by Richard Howard and Annette Lavers, provides additional antidotes to another stereotype about so-called French theorists. Annette Lavers’s 1970 translation included only twenty-eight of Barthes’s original fifty-three short essays, most no longer than two pages, but the entirety of his afterword, “Myth Today.” (In the longer essay, he explains how the coverage of royal weddings, sensational crimes, jet pilots, and famous writers photographed “on vacation,” set alongside advertisements for cleaning products and food, constituted a language with rules as codified as those of the classical French theatre he’d studied.) The ratio of theory to practice in the original edition could give the impression that Barthes was trying to erect a rigorous social science of semiological analysis on the rather gauzy foundation of a few photographs, articles, and advertisements that he’d arbitrarily selected from Paris Match and L’Express .

In fact, “Mythologies” began as a species of cultural journalism, of which certain blogs (Paul Krugman’s, for example) might be the closest contemporary analogue. Beginning in 1954, Barthes had been asked to write a monthly or bimonthly column for the Paris literary magazine Lettres Nouvelles , which he did, dutifully, for two years. His attempt to synthesize these pieces into a larger statement of methodology came later, as Barthes reread his own closely observed and documented associations. The myth—current since Edmund Burke denounced the Declaration of the Rights of Man—of French intellectuals blinded by their own theories, implicitly contrasted with the more empirical and process-driven Anglo-American mind, thus bites the dust, as Barthes himself hoped it would.

“Mythologies,” like Krugman’s blog, also can be read as a kind of chronicle. Barthes used his platform at the magazine, in part, as a way of tracking his frustrations with social and political landscape of France from 1954 to 1956: a time of increasing middle-class prosperity, coinciding with France’s struggle to hold onto its colonies in North Africa and Southeast Asia, and DeGaulle’s attempts to restore some kind of national pride in the aftermath of the Second World War. Most worryingly for Barthes, these were years that also saw the rise of an explicitly anti-intellectual, racist, and populist political party—the forerunner of today’s Front National—headed by a former French Air Force pilot, rugby player, and gym teacher, Pierre Poujade.

Barthes detects elements of Poujadisme in the press’s fondness for tautologies (“business is business,” “Racine is Racine”); the cult of jet pilots (“the jet man is defined less by his courage than by his weight, his diet, and his habits (temperance, frugality, continence)”); and a brief vogue for the hypnotic spectacle of mass American evangelical “crusades” (“If God is really speaking through Dr. Graham’s mouth, it must be acknowledged that God is quite stupid,” he writes of Billy Graham’s appearance at the Vélodrome D’Hiver, where, thirteen years earlier, thousands of Paris’s Jews had been herded prior to their deportation to Auschwitz). Barthes could be scathing, or sometimes just catty—and much of the pleasure of reading “Mythologies” comes from its archly composed anger—but his intention often seems less to deplore than to understand the habits of mind that led his countrypeople to rise, open-mouthed, to such bait.

The urge to succumb to the mythic appeal of modern products, including politicians and celebrities, as well as to the stories we come to associate with them, affected Barthes. It takes a certain unabashed enthusiasm to begin an essay on car design “I believe the automobile is, today, the almost exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals,” even as he concludes pessimistically that the auto industry has fallen prey to “petit bourgeois annexation.” His piece on “professional” wrestling—“it is no more ignoble to watch a wrestled performance of Suffering than the sorrows of Arnulphe or Andromaque”—was a direct influence on Sontag’s “Notes on Camp,” and pretty much every subsequent, serious exaltation of low or popular arts and culture. When Barthes writes of the “impassive anonymous” hero or bastard of the ring, leaving with a gym bag and his wife on his arm, like a priest packing up after Mass, he establishes a particular tone of genuine fascination that makes us see the spectacle and its actors in a new way—through style—and also reminds us that the word “theory” really just means a way of seeing things.

Contemporary readers will also detect a hint—in essays like those on Citroens and the marketing of margarine through an early version of the “I can’t believe it’s not butter” campaign—of the current practice of “semiotic brand analysis,” when companies hire intelligent people, usually with an undergraduate background in the classes Eugenides makes fun of, to explain to them how to increase the appeal of their own brands. Barthes may not have looked favorably on what he called “the domestication” of the automobile, but when he notes how “the dashboard looks more like the worktable of a modern kitchen than a factory control room,” he was articulating a change that made cars more acceptable to women and families, of which the Citroen designers themselves may have been only dimly aware.

The legacy of “Mythologies” falls short of the complete smashing of signs, the “semioclasm” Barthes wished for in his 1970 preface—neither he nor anyone else has solved the problem of why certain basic human longings for freedom, or heroes, or cleanliness attach themselves so easily to travel guides, bicycle races, plastics, and laundry detergent. And he probably could not have anticipated how completely the very instruments of his analysis could then be adapted to sell even more of those things, especially in Europe’s former colonial domains. Yet the essays retain a force of example that harden them against being read, with fond nostalgia, as mere articles of an outmoded age of cultural criticism. The very ease with which, as a party game, you can substitute “The Tea Party” for “ Poujadisme ” in certain sentences without changing the meaning very much should be proof that there are certain myths we don’t outgrow, even if the signifiers change. For another generation caught in the idiocies and contradictions of its moment, these essays reveal how an acutely intelligent and sensitive mind can write its way through and set its own poise against them.

Photograph by Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum.

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Plato’s Myths

What the ancient Greeks—at least in the archaic phase of their civilization—called muthos was quite different from what we and the media nowadays call “myth”. For them a muthos was a true story, a story that unveils the true origin of the world and human beings. For us a myth is something to be “debunked”: a widespread, popular belief that is in fact false. In archaic Greece the memorable was transmitted orally through poetry, which often relied on myth. However, starting with the beginning of the seventh century BC two types of discourse emerged that were set in opposition to poetry: history (as shaped by, most notably, Thucydides) and philosophy (as shaped by the peri phuseōs tradition of the sixth and fifth centuries BC). These two types of discourse were naturalistic alternatives to the poetic accounts of things. Plato broke to some extent from the philosophical tradition of the sixth and fifth centuries in that he uses both traditional myths and myths he invents and gives them some role to play in his philosophical endeavor. He thus seems to attempt to overcome the traditional opposition between muthos and logos .

There are many myths in Plato’s dialogues: traditional myths, which he sometimes modifies, as well as myths that he invents, although many of these contain mythical elements from various traditions. Plato is both a myth teller and a myth maker. In general, he uses myth to inculcate in his less philosophical readers noble beliefs and/or teach them various philosophical matters that may be too difficult for them to follow if expounded in a blunt, philosophical discourse. More and more scholars have argued in recent years that in Plato myth and philosophy are tightly bound together, in spite of his occasional claim that they are opposed modes of discourse.

1. Plato’s reading audience

2. plato’s myths, 3. myth as a means of persuasion, 4. myth as a teaching tool, 5. myth in the timaeus, 6. myth and philosophy, 7. plato’s myths in the platonist tradition, 8. renaissance illustrations of plato’s myths, anthologies of plato’s myths, short introductions to plato’s myths, articles and books on plato’s myths, plato’s myths in the platonist tradition, references cited, other internet resources, related entries.

For whom did Plato write? Who was his readership? A very good survey of this topic is Yunis 2007 from which I would like to quote the following illuminating passage: “before Plato, philosophers treated arcane subjects in technical treatises that had no appeal outside small circles of experts. These writings, ‘on nature’, ‘on truth’, ‘on being’ and so on, mostly in prose, some in verse, were demonstrative, not protreptic. Plato, on the other hand, broke away from the experts and sought to treat ethical problems of universal relevance and to make philosophy accessible to the public” (13). Other scholars, such as Morgan (2003), have also argued that Plato addressed in his writings both philosophical and non-philosophical audiences.

It is true that in the Republic Plato has the following advice for philosophers: “like someone who takes refuge under a little wall from a storm of dust or hail driven by the wind, the philosopher—seeing others filled with lawlessness—is satisfied if he can somehow lead his present life free from injustice and impious acts and depart from it with good hope, blameless and content” (496d–e) (unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Plato are from the translations included in Plato (1997)). He was certainly very bitter about Socrates’ fate. In his controversial interpretation Strauss (1964) argues that in Plato’s view the philosopher should stay disconnected from society. This interpretation is too extreme. Plato did not abandon Socrates’ credo, that the philosopher has a duty towards his fellow-citizens who do not devote their lives to philosophy. For him philosophy has a civic dimension. The one who makes it outside the cave should not forget about those who are still down there and believe that the shadows they see there are real beings. The philosopher should try to transmit his knowledge and his wisdom to the others, and he knows that he has a difficult mission. But Plato was not willing to go as far as Socrates did. He preferred to address the public at large through his written dialogues rather than conducting dialogues in the agora. He did not write abstruse philosophical treatises but engaging philosophical dialogues meant to appeal to a less philosophically inclined audience. The dialogues are, most of the time, prefaced by a sort of mise en scène in which the reader learns who the participants to the dialogue are, when, where and how they presently met, and what made them start their dialogue. The participants are historical and fictional characters. Whether historical or fictional, they meet in historical or plausible settings, and the prefatory mises en scène contain only some incidental anachronisms. Plato wanted his dialogues to look like genuine, spontaneous dialogues accurately preserved. How much of these stories and dialogues is fictional? It is hard to tell, but he surely invented a great deal of them. References to traditional myths and mythical characters occur throughout the dialogues. However, starting with the Protagoras and Gorgias , which are usually regarded as the last of his early writings, Plato begins to season his dialogues with self-contained, fantastical narratives that we usually label his ‘myths’. His myths are meant, among other things, to make philosophy more accessible.

There are in Plato identifiable traditional myths, such as the story of Gyges ( Republic 359d–360b), the myth of Phaethon ( Timaeus 22c7) or that of the Amazons ( Laws 804e4). Sometimes he modifies them, to a greater or lesser extent, while other times he combines them—this is the case, for instance, of the Noble Lie ( Republic 414b–415d), which is a combination of the Cadmeian myth of autochthony and the Hesiodic myth of ages. There are also in Plato myths that are his own, such as the myth of Er ( Republic 621b8) or the myth of Atlantis ( Timaeus 26e4). Many of the myths Plato invented feature characters and motifs taken from traditional mythology (such as the Isles of the Blessed or the judgment after death), and sometimes it is difficult to distinguish his own mythological motifs from the traditional ones. The majority of the myths he invents preface or follow a philosophical argument: the Gorgias myth (523a–527a), the myth of the androgyne ( Symposium 189d–193d), the Phaedo myth (107c–115a), the myth of Er ( Republic 614a–621d), the myth of the winged soul ( Phaedrus 246a–249d), the myth of Theuth ( Phaedrus 274c–275e), the cosmological myth of the Statesman (268–274e), the Atlantis myth ( Timaeus 21e–26d, Critias ), the Laws myth (903b–905b).

Plato refers sometimes to the myths he uses, whether traditional or his own, as muthoi (for an overview of all the loci where the word muthos occurs in Plato see Brisson 1998 (141ff.)). However, muthos is not an exclusive label. For instance: the myth of Theuth in the Phaedrus (274c1) is called an akoē (a “thing heard”, “report”, “story”); the myth of Cronus is called a phēmē (“oracle”, “tradition”, “rumour”) in the Laws (713c2) and a muthos in the Statesman (272d5, 274e1, 275b1); and the myth of Boreas at the beginning of the Phaedrus is called both muthologēma (229c5) and logos (d2).

The myths Plato invents, as well as the traditional myths he uses, are narratives that are non-falsifiable, for they depict particular beings, deeds, places or events that are beyond our experience: the gods, the daemons, the heroes, the life of soul after death, the distant past, etc. Myths are also fantastical, but they are not inherently irrational and they are not targeted at the irrational parts of the soul. Kahn (1996, 66–7) argues that between Plato’s “otherworldly vision” and “the values of Greek society in the fifth and fourth centuries BC” was a “radical discrepancy”. In that society, Plato’s metaphysical vision seemed “almost grotesquely out of place”. This discrepancy, claims Kahn, “is one explanation for Plato’s use of myth: myth provides the necessary literary distancing that permits Plato to articulate his out–of–place vision of meaning and truth.”

The discussion of the Symposium ends with Aristophanes and Agathon falling asleep while Socrates is trying to prove that “the skilful tragic dramatist should also be a comic poet” (223d). Plato himself seems to be such an author, as some of his dialogues read like tragedies (e.g. the Phaedo ), while others mix arguments with irony and humour (e.g. the Euthydemus , Lesser Hippias , or Ion ). For the link between drama and philosophy in Plato’s dialogues see Puchner (2010), Folch (2015), Zimmermann (2018), and Fossheim, Songe-Møller and Ågotnes (2019); for the importance of comedy and laughter in the dialogues see Tanner (2017) and Naas (2018b); and for the theory and practice of narrative in Plato see Halliwell (2009). And now to go back to Kahn’s claim (see the above paragraph) that in Plato “myth provides the necessary literary distancing that permits Plato to articulate his out–of–place vision of meaning and truth.” This may well be the case. But we have to keep in mind that Plato’s dialogues are a mix of various literary genres (philosophy, comedy, tragedy, poetry, mythology, rhetoric), and that this mix is also (to use Kahn’s expression) out-of-place. In other words, both the content and the form of Plato’s dialogues were, and still are, rather extraordinary—and that, I reckon, was meant to free his readers from conventions and encourage them to think for themselves about the issues that, he, Plato, discusses in his dialogues.

The Cave, the narrative that occurs in the Republic (514a–517a), is a fantastical story, but it does not deal explicitly with the beyond (the distant past, life after death etc.), and is thus different from the traditional myths Plato uses and the myths he invents. Strictly speaking, the Cave is an analogy, not a myth. Also in the Republic , Socrates says that until philosophers take control of a city “the politeia whose story we are telling in words ( muthologein ) will not achieve its fulfillment in practice” (501e2–5; translated by Rowe (1999, 268)). The construction of the ideal city may be called a “myth” in the sense that it depicts an imaginary polis (cf. 420c2: “We imagine the happy state”). In the Phaedrus (237a9, 241e8) the word muthos is used to name “the rhetorical exercise which Socrates carries out” (Brisson 1998, 144), but this seems to be a loose usage of the word.

Most (2012) argues that there are eight main features of the Platonic myth. (a) Myths are a monologue, which those listening do not interrupt; (b) they are told by an older speaker to younger listeners; (c) they “go back to older, explicitly indicated or implied, real or fictional oral sources” (17); (d) they cannot be empirically verified; (e) their authority derive from tradition, and “for this reason they are not subject to rational examination by the audience” (18); (f) they have a psychologic effect: pleasure, or a motivating impulse to perform an action “capable of surpassing any form of rational persuasion” (18); (g) they are descriptive or narrative; (h) they precede or follow a dialectical exposition. Most acknowledges that these eight features are not completely uncontroversial, and that there are occasional exceptions; but applied flexibly, they allow us to establish a corpus of at least fourteen Platonic myths in the Phaedo , Gorgias , Protagoras , Meno , Phaedrus , Symposium , Republic X, Statesman , Timaeus , Critias and Laws IV. The first seven features “are thoroughly typical of the traditional myths which were found in the oral culture of ancient Greece and which Plato himself often describes and indeed vigorously criticizes” (19).

Dorion (2012) argues that the Oracle story in Plato’s Apology has all these eight features of the Platonic myth discussed by Most (2012). Dorion concludes that the Oracle story is not only a Platonic fiction, but also a Platonic myth, more specifically: a myth of origin. Who invented the examination of the opinions of others by the means of elenchus ? Aristotle (see Sophistical Refutations 172a30–35 and Rhetoric 1354a3–7) thought that the practice of refutation is, as Dorion puts it, “lost in the mists of time and that it is hence vain to seek an exact origin of it” (433). Plato, however, attempts to convince us that the dialectical elenchus “were a form of argumentation that Socrates began to practice spontaneously as soon as he learned of the Oracle” (433); thus, Plato confers to it a divine origin; in the Charmides he does the same when he makes Socrates say that he learned an incantation (a metaphor for the elenchus ) from Zalmoxis; see also the Philebus 16c (on Socrates mythologikos see also Miller (2011)).

We have a comprehensive book about the people of Plato: Nails (2002); now we also have one about the animals of Plato: Bell and Naas (2015). Anyone interested in myth, metaphor, and on how people and animals are intertwined in Plato would be rewarded by consulting it. Here is a quotation from the editors’ introduction, “Plato’s Menagerie”:

Animal images, examples, analogies, myths, or fables are used in almost every one of Plato’s dialogues to help characterize, delimit, and define many of the dialogues’ most important figures and themes. They are used to portray not just Socrates [compared to a gadfly, horse, swan, snake, stork, fawn, and torpedo ray] but many other characters in the dialogues, from the wolfish Thrasymachus of the Republic to the venerable racehorse Parmenides of the Parmenides . Even more, animals are used throughout the dialogues to develop some of Plato’s most important political or philosophical ideas. […] By our reckoning, there is but a single dialogue (the Crito ) that does not contain any obvious reference to animals, while most dialogues have many. What is more, throughout Plato’s dialogues the activity or enterprise of philosophy itself is often compared to a hunt, where the interlocutors are the hunters and the object of the dialogue’s search—ideas of justice, beauty, courage, piety, or friendship—their elusive animal prey. (Bell and Naas 2015, 1–2)

For Plato we should live according to what reason is able to deduce from what we regard as reliable evidence. This is what real philosophers, like Socrates, do. But the non-philosophers are reluctant to ground their lives on logic and arguments. They have to be persuaded. One means of persuasion is myth. Myth inculcates beliefs. It is efficient in making the less philosophically inclined, as well as children (cf. Republic 377a ff.), believe noble things.

In the Republic the Noble Lie is supposed to make the citizens of Callipolis care more for their city. Schofield (2009) argues that the guards, having to do philosophy from their youth, may eventually find philosophizing “more attractive than doing their patriotic duty” (115). Philosophy, claims Schofield, provides the guards with knowledge, not with love and devotion for their city. The Noble Lie is supposed to engender in them devotion for their city and instill in them the belief that they should “invest their best energies into promoting what they judge to be the city’s best interests” (113). The preambles to a number of laws in the Laws that are meant to be taken as exhortations to the laws in question and that contain elements of traditional mythology (see 790c3, 812a2, 841c6) may also be taken as “noble lies”.

The following myths are eschatological: Gorgias 523a–527a, Meno 81a–d, Phaedo 107c–115a, Phaedrus 246a–257a, Republic 614b–621d, and Laws 903b–905d. The stories they tell differ—to a greater or lesser extent—although some themes occur in more than one of them: the judgement of souls for their earthly life, their subsequent punishment or reward, the contemplation of forms in the other world, and reincarnation (which, in the Phaedo 81d–e, is part of the soul’s punishment or reward; see also the Timaeus 42c–e and 90e–92c). These are Plato’s myths, but they feature many elements and deities of classical mythology (such as Zeus, Prometheus, Hestia, Necessity and the Fates). For good surveys of Plato’s eschatological myths see Annas (1982) and Inwood (2009); see also the entries on myth and eschatology in Press and Duque (2022). For the relationship between philosophy and religion in Plato see Nightingale (2021). O’Meara (2017, 114) argues that the Timaeus and the Statesman are “reformed Panathenaic” festivals—in which Zeus ( Timaeus ) and Athena ( Statesman ) are “reformed”—while the Laws is a “reformed Dionysian festival” (in which Dionysus is “reformed”).

Plato’s eschatological myths are not complete lies. There is some truth in them. In the Phaedo the statement “The soul is immortal” is presented as following logically from various premises Socrates and his interlocutors consider acceptable (cf. 106b–107a). After the final argument for immortality (102a–107b), Cebes admits that he has no further objections to, nor doubts about, Socrates’ arguments. But Simmias confesses that he still retains some doubt (107a–b), and then Socrates tells them an eschatological myth. The myth does not provide evidence that the soul is immortal. It assumes that the soul is immortal and so it may be said that it is not entirely false. The myth also claims that there is justice in the afterlife and Socrates hopes that the myth will convince one to believe that the soul is immortal and that there is justice in the afterlife. “I think”, says Socrates, that “it is fitting for a man to risk the belief—for the risk is a noble one—that this, or something like this, is true about our souls and their dwelling places” (114d–e). (Edmonds (2004) offers a interesting analysis of the final myth of Phaedo , Aristophanes’ Frogs and the funerary gold leaves, or “tablets”, that have been found in Greek tombs). At the end of the myth of Er (the eschatological myth of the Republic ) Socrates says that the myth “would save us, if we were persuaded by it” (621b). Myth represents a sort of back-up: if one fails to be persuaded by arguments to change one’s life, one may still be persuaded by a good myth. Myth, as it is claimed in the Laws , may be needed to “charm” one “into agreement” (903b) when philosophy fails to do so.

Sedley (2009) argues that the eschatological myth of the Gorgias is best taken as an allegory of “moral malaise and reform in our present life” (68) and Halliwell (2007) that the myth of Er may be read as an allegory of life in this world. Gonzales (2012) claims that the myth of Er offers a “spectacle [that] is, in the words of the myth itself, pitiful, comic and bewildering” (259). Thus, he argues, “what generally characterizes human life according to the myth is a fundamental opacity ” (272); which means that the myth is not actually a dramatization of the philosophical reasoning that unfolds in the Republic , as one might have expected, but of everything that “such reasoning cannot penetrate and master, everything that stubbornly remains dark and irrational: embodiment, chance, character, carelessness, and forgetfulness, as well as the inherent complexity and diversity of the factors that define a life and that must be balanced in order to achieve a good life” (272). The myth blurs the boundary between this world and the other. To believe that soul is immortal and that we should practice justice in all circumstances, Gonzales argues, we have to be persuaded by what Socrates says, not by the myth of Er. Unlike the eschatological myths of the Gorgias and Phaedo , the final myth of the Republic illustrates rather “everything in this world that opposes the realization of the philosophical ideal. If the other myths offer the philosopher a form of escapism, the myth of Er is his nightmare” (277, n. 36).

The philosopher should share his philosophy with others. But since others may sometimes not follow his arguments, Plato is ready to provide whatever it takes—an image, a simile, or a myth—that will help them grasp what the argument failed to tell them. The myth—just like an image, or analogy—may be a good teaching tool. Myth can embody in its narrative an abstract philosophical doctrine. In the Phaedo , Plato develops the so-called theory of recollection (72e–78b). The theory is there expounded in rather abstract terms. The eschatological myth of the Phaedo depicts the fate of souls in the other world, but it does not “dramatize” the theory of recollection. The Phaedrus myth of the winged soul, however, does. In it we are told how the soul travels in the heavens before reincarnation, attempts to gaze on true reality, forgets what it saw in the heavens once reincarnated, and then recalls the eternal forms it saw in the heavens when looking at their perceptible embodiments. The Phaedrus myth does not provide any proofs or evidence to support the theory of recollection. It simply assumes this theory to be true and provides (among other things) an “adaptation” of it. Since this theory the myth embodies is, for Plato, true, the myth has (pace Plato) a measure of truth in it, although its many fantastical details may lead one astray if taken literally. Among other things, the fantastical narrative of the myth helps the less philosophically inclined grasp the main point of Plato’s theory of recollection, namely that “knowledge is recollection”.

The cosmology of the Timaeus is a complex and ample construction, involving a divine maker (assisted by a group of less powerful gods), who creates the cosmos out of a given material (dominated by an inner impulse towards disorder) and according to an intelligible model. The cosmology as a whole is called both an eikōs muthos (29d, 59c, 68d) and an eikōs logos (30b, 48d, 53d, 55d, 56a, 57d, 90e). The expression eikōs muthos has been translated as ‘probable tale’ (Jowett), ‘likely story’ (Cornford), ‘likely tale’ (Zeyl). The standard interpretation is promoted by, among others, Cornford (1937, 31ff.). The Timaeus cosmology, Cornford argues, is a muthos because it is cast in the form of a narration, not as a piece-by-piece analysis. But also, and mainly, because its object, namely the universe, is always in a process of becoming and cannot be really known. Brisson (1998, ch. 13) offers a different solution, but along the same lines. The cosmology, Brisson argues, is a non-verifiable discourse about the perceptible universe before and during its creation. In other words: the cosmology is an eikōs muthos because it is about what happens to an eikōn before, and during, its creation, when everything is so fluid that it cannot be really known. The standard alternative is to say that the problem lies in the cosmologist, not in the object of his cosmology. It is not that the universe is so unstable so that it cannot be really known. It is that we fail to provide an exact and consistent description of it. A proponent of this view is Taylor (1928, 59). Rowe (2003) has argued that the emphasis at 29d2 is on the word eikōs , not muthos , and that here muthos is used primarily as a substitute for logos without its typical opposition to that term (a view also held by Vlastos (1939, 380–3)). Burnyeat (2009) argues that this cosmology is an attempt to disclose the rationality of the cosmos, namely the Demiurge’s reasons for making it thus and so. The word eikōs (a participial form of the verb eoika , “to be like”) is, argues Burnyeat, usually translated as “probable”; but—as textual evidence from Homer to Plato proves—it also means “appropriate”, “fitting”, “fair”, “natural”, “reasonable”. Since the cosmology reveals what is reasonable in the eikōn made by the Demiurge, it may rightly be called eikōs , “reasonable”. The Demiurge’s reasoning, however, is practical, not theoretical. The Demiurge, Burnyeat claims, works with given materials, and when he creates the cosmos, he does not have a free choice, but has to adjust his plans to them. Although we know that the Demiurge is supremely benevolent towards his creation, none of us could be certain of his practical reasons for framing the cosmos the way he did. That is why anyone aiming at disclosing them cannot but come up with “probable” answers. Plato’s cosmology is then eikōs in the two senses of the word, for it is both “reasonable” and “probable”. But why does Plato call it a muthos ? Because, Burnyeat argues, the Timaeus cosmology is also a theogony (for the created cosmos is for Plato a god), and this shows Plato’s intention to overcome the traditional opposition between muthos and logos .

Timaeus speaks about the Demiurge’s practical reasoning for creating the cosmos as he did. No cosmologist can deduce these reasons from various premises commonly accepted. He has to imagine them, but they are neither fantastical, nor sophistic. The cosmologist exercises his imagination under some constraints. He has to come up with reasonable and coherent conjectures. And in good Socratic and Platonic tradition, he has to test them with others. This is what Timaeus does. He expounds his cosmology in front of other philosophers, whom he calls kritai , “judges” (29d1). They are highly skilled and experienced philosophers: Socrates, Critias and Hermocrates and at the beginning of the Critias , the sequel to the Timaeus , they express their admiration for Timaeus’ cosmological account (107a). One may say that Timaeus’ account has been peer-reviewed. The judges, however, says Plato, have to be tolerant, for in this field one cannot provide more than conjectures. Timaeus’ cosmological discourse is not aimed at persuading a less philosophically inclined audience to change their lives. It may be argued that its creationist scenario was meant to make the difficult topic of the genesis of the realm of becoming more accessible. In the Philebus , in a tight dialectical conversation, the genesis of the realm of becoming is explained in abstract terms (the unlimited, limit, being that is mixed and generated out of those two; and the cause of this mixture and generation, 27b–c). But the Timaeus aims at encompassing more than the Philebus . It aims not only at revealing the ultimate ontological principles (accessible to human reason, cf. 53d), and at explaining how their interaction brings forth the world of becoming, but also at disclosing, within a teleological framework, the reasons for which the cosmos was created the way it is. These reasons are to be imagined because imagination has to fill in the gaps that reason leaves in this attempt to disclose the reasons for which the cosmos was created the way it is.

In the Protagoras (324d) a distinction is made between muthos and logos , where muthos appears to refer to a story and logos to an argument. This distinction seems to be echoed in the Theaetetus and the Sophist. In the Theaetetus Socrates discusses Protagoras’ main doctrine and refers to it as “the muthos of Protagoras” (164d9) (in the same line Socrates also calls Theaetetus’ defence of the identity of knowledge and perception a muthos ). And later on, at 156c4, Socrates calls a muthos the teaching according to which active and passive motions generate perception and perceived objects. In the Sophist , the Visitor from Elea tells his interlocutors that Xenophanes, Parmenides and other Eleatic, Ionian (Heraclitus included) and Sicilian philosophers “appear to me to tell us a myth, as if we were children” (242c8; see also c–e). By calling all those philosophical doctrines muthoi Plato does not claim that they are myths proper, but that they are, or appear to be, non-argumentative. In the Republic Plato is fairly hostile to particular traditional myths (but he claims that there are two kinds of logoi , one true and the other false, and that the muthoi we tell children “are false, on the whole, though they have some truth in them”, 377a; for a discussion of allegory and myth in Plato’s Republic see Lear (2006)). Halliwell (2011) claims that Book X of the Republic “offers not a simple repudiation of the best poets but a complicated counterpoint in which resistance and attraction to their work are intertwined, a counterpoint which (among other things) explores the problem of whether, and in what sense, it might be possible to be a ‘philosophical lover’ of poetry” (244). For an illuminating article on the Republic and the Odyssey see Segal (1978); see also Howland (2006).

In many dialogues he condemns the use of images in knowing things and claims that true philosophical knowledge should avoid images. He would have had strong reasons for avoiding the use of myths: they are not argumentative and they are extremely visual (especially those he invented, which contain so many visual details as if he would have given instructions to an illustrator). But he didn’t. He wanted to persuade and/or teach a wider audience, so he had to make a compromise. Sometimes, however, he seems to interweave philosophy with myth to a degree that was not required by persuading and/or teaching a non-philosophical audience. The eschatological myths of the Gorgias , Phaedo and Republic , for instance, are tightly bound with the philosophical arguments of those dialogues (cf. Annas 1982); and the eschatological myth of the Phaedo “picks one by one the programmatic remarks about teleological science from earlier on in the dialogue, and sketches ways in which their proposals can be fulfilled” (Sedley 1990, 381). Some other times he uses myth as a supplement to philosophical discourse (cf. Kahn (2009) who argues that in the myth of the Statesman Plato makes a doctrinal contribution to his political philosophy; Naas (2018a, Chapter 2) offers an interesting interpretation of this myth, and (Chapter 3) discusses Michel Foucault’s reading of it. A number of chapters in Sallis (2017) and in Bossi and Robinson (2018) reassess the myth of the Statesman . One time, in the Timaeus , Plato appears to overcome the opposition between muthos and logos : human reason has limits, and when it reaches them it has to rely on myth (arguably, that also happen in the Symposium ; for a very close reading of how Diotima’s speech interacts with Aristophanes’ myth of the androgyne see Hyland (2015).

“On the less radical version, the idea will be that the telling of stories is a necessary adjunct to, or extension of, philosophical argument, one which recognizes our human limitations, and—perhaps—the fact that our natures combine irrational elements with the rational” (Rowe 1999, 265). On a more radical interpretation, “the distinction between ‘the philosophical’ and ‘the mythical’ will—at one level—virtually disappear” (265). If we take into account that Plato chose to express his thoughts through a narrative form, namely that of the dialogue (further enveloped in fictional mises en scène ), we may say that the “use of a fictional narrative form (the dialogue) will mean that any conclusions reached, by whatever method (including ‘rational argument’), may themselves be treated as having the status of a kind of ‘myth’” (265). If so, “a sense of the ‘fictionality’ of human utterance, as provisional, inadequate, and at best approximating to the truth, will infect Platonic writing at its deepest level, below other and more ordinary applications of the distinction between mythical and nonmythical forms of discourse” (265); if so, it is not only “that ‘myth’ will fill in the gaps that reason leaves (though it might do that too, as well as serving special purposes for particular audiences), but that human reason itself ineradicably displays some of the features we characteristically associate with story-telling” (265–6) (cf. also Fowler (2011, 64): “Just as the immortal, purely rational soul is tainted by the irrational body, so logos is tainted by mythos ”). It is difficult to say which one of these two readings is a better approximation of what Plato thought about the interplay between myth and philosophy. The interpreter seems bound to furnish only probable accounts about this matter.

Fowler (2011) surveys the muthos–logos dichotomy from Herodotus and the pre–Socratic philosophers to Plato, the Sophists, and the Hellenistic and Imperial writers, and provides many valuable references to works dealing with the notion of muthos , the Archaic uses of myth– words, and ancient Greek mythology; see also Wians (2009). For the muthos–logos dichotomy in Plato see also Miller (2011, 76–77).

Aristotle admits that the lover of myths is in a sense a lover of wisdom ( Metaphysics 982b18; cf. also 995a4 and 1074b1–10). He might have used a myth or two in his early dialogues, now lost. But in general he seems to have distanced himself from myth (cf. Metaphysics 1000a18–9).

On the philosophical use of myth before Plato there are a number of good studies, notably Morgan 2000. There is, however, little on the philosophical use of myth in the Platonist tradition. Of Plato’s immediate successors in the Academy, Speusippus, Xenocrates and Heraclides of Pontus composed both dialogues and philosophical treatises. But, with one exception, none of these seems to have used myths as Plato did. The exception is Heraclides, who wrote various dialogues—such as On the Things in Hades , Zoroastres and Abaris —involving mythical stories and mythical, or semi-mythical, figures. In the later Platonist tradition—with the exception of Cicero and Plutarch—there is not much evidence that Plato’s philosophical use of myths was an accepted practice. In the Neoplatonic tradition various Platonic myths became the subject of elaborate allegorization. Porphyry, Proclus, Damascius and Olympiodorus gave allegorical interpretations of a number of Platonic myths, such as the Phaedo and Gorgias eschatological myths, or the myth of Atlantis.

For the influence of Plato’s myths on various thinkers (Bacon, Leibniz, the German Idealists, Cassirer and others) see Keum (2020).

Plato was a celebrated figure in the Renaissance but only a few illustrations of Platonic mythical motifs can be found. Perhaps Plato’s attitude to visual representation—claiming so often that the highest philosophical knowledge is devoid of it, and attacking poets and artists in general more than once—inhibited and discouraged attempts to capture in painting, sculpture or prints, the mythical scenes Plato himself depicted so vividly in words. Perhaps artists simply felt themselves unequal to the task. McGrath (2009) reviews and analyzes the rare illustrations of Platonic mythical figures and landscapes in Renaissance iconography: the androgyne of the Symposium , the charioteer of the Phaedrus , the Cave , and the spindle of the universe handled by Necessity and the Fates of the Republic .

  • Partenie, C. (ed.), 2004, Plato. Selected Myths , Oxford: Oxford University Press. Reissued 2009; Kindle edition 2012.
  • Stewart, J. A., 1905, The Myths of Plato , translated with introductory and other observations, London & New York: Macmillan. 2 nd edition, London: Centaurus Press, 1960. 3 rd edition, New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970.
  • Most, G. W., 2012, “Plato’s Exoteric Myths”, in C. Collobert, P. Destrée and F. J. Gonzales (eds.), Plato and Myth. Studies on the Use and Status of Platonic Myths ( Mnemosyne Supplements, 337), Leiden-Boston: Brill, 13–24.
  • Murray, P., 1999, “What Is a Muthos for Plato?”, in R. Buxton (ed.), From Myth to Reason? Studies in the Development of Greek Thought , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 251–262.
  • Partenie, C., L. Brisson, and J. Dillon, 2004, “Introduction”, in C. Partenie (ed.), Plato. Selected Myths , Oxford: Oxford University Press, xiii–xxx. Reissued 2009; Kindle edition 2012.
  • Partenie, C., 2009, “Introduction”, in C. Partenie (ed.), Plato’s Myths , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1–27. Reprinted 2011.
  • Annas, J., 1982, “Plato’s Myths of Judgement”, Phronesis , 27: 119–43.
  • Brisson, L., 1998, Plato the Myth Maker [ Platon, les mots et les mythes ], translated, edited, and with an introduction by Gerard Naddaf, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • A. Capra, A., 2017, “Seeing through Plato’s Looking Glass. Mythos and Mimesis from Republic to Poetics ”, Aisthesis 1(1): 75–86.
  • Collobert, C., Destrée, P., Gonzales, F. J. (eds.), 2012, Plato and Myth. Studies on the Use and Status of Platonic Myths ( Mnemosyne Supplements, 337), Leiden-Boston: Brill.
  • Edmonds, III, R. G., 2004, Myths of the Underworld Journey. Plato, Aristophanes and the “Orphic” Gold Tablets , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Fowler, R., 2011, “ Mythos and logos ”, Journal of Hellenic Studies , 131: 45–66.
  • Frutiger, P., 1976, Les Mythes de Platon , New York: Arno Press. Originally published in 1930.
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  • Griswold Jr., C. J., 1996, “Excursus: Myth in the Phaedrus and the Unity of the Dialogue”, in Self-Knowledge in Plato’s Phaedrus, University Park: Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 138–156.
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  • Hyland, D., 2015, “The Animals That Therefore We Were? Aristophanes’s Double–Creatures and the Question of Origins”, in J. Bell, J. & M. Naas (eds.), Plato’s Animals: Gadflies, Horses, Swans, and Other Philosophical Beasts , Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 193–205.
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  • Morgan, K., 2000, Myth and Philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Plato , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Naddaf, G., 2016, “Poetic Myths of the Afterlife: Plato’s Last Song”, in Rick Benitez and Keping Wang (eds.), Refelections on Plato’s Poetics , Berrima: Academic Printing and Publishing, 111–136.
  • Partenie, C. (ed.), 2009, Plato’s Myths , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Reprinted 2011.
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Renaissance illustrations of Plato’s myths

  • Chastel, A., 1959, Art et humanisme à Florence au temps de Laurent le Magnifique , Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  • McGrath, E., 1983. “‘The Drunken Alcibiades’: Rubens’s Picture of Plato’s Symposium ”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes , 46: 228–35.
  • McGrath, E., 1994, “From Parnassus to Careggi. A Florentine Celebration of Renaissance Platonism”, in J. Onians (ed.), Sight and Insight: Essays on Art and Culture in Honour of E. H. Gombrich at 85 , London: Phaidon, 190–220.
  • McGrath, E., 2009, “Platonic myths in Renaissance iconography”, in C. Partenie (ed.), Plato’s Myths , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 206–238.
  • Vinken, P.J., 1960, “H.L. Spiegel’s Antrum Platonicum. A Contribution to the Iconology of the Heart”, Oud Holland , 75: 125–42.
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  • Bell, J., Naas, M. (eds.), 2015, Plato’s Animals: Gadflies, Horses, Swans, and Other Philosophical Beasts , Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Bossi, B., and Robinson, T. M. (eds), 2018, Plato’s Statesman Revisited , Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter.
  • Buxton, R. (ed.), 1999, From Myth to Reason? Studies in the Development of Greek Thought , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Burnyeat, M. F., 2009, “ Eikōs muthos ”, in C. Partenie (ed.), Plato’s Myths , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 167–186.
  • Cornford, F.M., 1937, Plato’s Cosmology: The Timaeus of Plato , translated with a running commentary, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Dorion, L.-A., 2012, “The Delphic Oracle on Socrates’ Wisdom: A Myth?”, in C. Collobert, P. Destrée and F. J. Gonzales (eds.), Plato and Myth. Studies on the Use and Status of Platonic Myths ( Mnemosyne Supplements, 337), Leiden-Boston: Brill, 419–434.
  • Edmonds, III, R. G., 2004, Myths of the Underworld Journey. Plato, Aristophanes, and the “Orphic” Gold Tablets , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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  • Folch, M., 2015, The City and the Stage: Performance, Genre, and Gender in Plato’s Laws, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Fossheim, H., Songe-Møller, V., and Ågotnes, K. (eds.), 2019, Philosophy as Drama. Plato’s Thinking Through Dialogue , London and New York: Bloomsbury.
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  • Halliwell, S., 2007, “The Life-and-Death Journey of the Soul: Interpreting the Myth of Er”, in G. R. F. Ferrari (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 445–473.
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How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
  • Last Judgments: Plato, Poetry and Myth , a short podcast by Peter Adamson (Philosophy, Kings College London).

Plato | Plato: middle period metaphysics and epistemology | Plato: rhetoric and poetry | Plato: Timaeus | Socrates

Acknowledgments

This entry is loosely based on my introduction to a volume I edited, Plato’s Myths , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. There is some inevitable overlap, but this entry is sufficiently different from the above-mentioned introduction to be considered a new text. A version of this introduction was presented at the University of Neuchâtel. I am grateful to my audience for their critical remarks. Feedback on a first draft has come from Richard Kraut.

Copyright © 2022 by Catalin Partenie < cdpartenie @ politice . ro >

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Myth Theory: A Study towards Mythic Tale and It's Reach in Today's Life

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2021, International Journal of English Language, Literature in Humanities

Myth can vaguely be said to have come into existence due to the urge of seeking answers to curious mind about the universe, nature, man or can be the result emerged from the need for religious stability of societal control using certain customs and rituals. Myth when looked with a proper outlook can be termed as meaningful, for it beholds metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that deals with the first source of things, including intangible concepts such as being, identity, time and space in its primary sense while developing close proximity to immediate perception of reality. The universal belief system is held and disseminated with a certain amount of pompousness in language and settings, based on mythic stories of a clan or cult. The purpose of this paper is to establish mythic tales as a vital ingredients for posterity to look upon and validate that the re-reading of mythic tales into fiction opens up a variety of possibilities, including: various perspectives and dimensions to the same story portrayed in/as legendary texts. Humanistic consideration is brought about by individual representation. There are a variety of ways to look at the philosophy that has been passed down through the generations through stories. Keywords: Myth, Mythic Tales, Re-Interpretation, Sociological aspect, Pedagogical value.

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myth theory essay

An A to Z of Theory Roland Barthes’s Mythologies: A Critical Theory of Myths

In theory , new in ceasefire - posted on friday, september 30, 2011 12:54 - 19 comments.

myth theory essay

The most explicitly political aspect of Barthes’s work is his ‘mythology’, or analysis of myths.  Many of the myths he studies come from the fields of politics and journalism.  Barthes’s work on myths prefigures discourse-analysis in media studies.  He is discussing the type of discourse which is particularly typical of right-wing populism and of the tabloid press.

The main purpose of his work in ‘Mythologies’ is to dissect the functioning of certain insidious myths.  Myth is a second-order semiotic system . It takes an already constituted sign and turns it into a signifier. 

Barthes’s example is a magazine cover which shows a black soldier saluting the French flag. At the level of first-order language, this picture is a signifier (an image) which denotes an event (a soldier saluting a flag). But at the second-order mythological level, it signifies something else: the idea of France as a great multi-ethnic empire, the combination of Frenchness and militariness.

Myth is a metalanguage. It turns language into a means to speak about itself. However, it does this in a repressive way, concealing the construction of signs. The system of myths tends to reduce the raw material of signifying objects to similarity.  For instance, it uses a photograph and a book in exactly the same way.

Myths differ from other kinds of signifiers.  For one thing, they are never arbitrary.  They always contain some kind of analogy which motivates them.  In contrast to ideas of false consciousness, myths don’t hide anything.  Instead, myths inflect or distort particular images or signs to carry a particular meaning.  Myth doesn’t hide things, it distorts them.  It alienates the history of the sign.

Barthes’s main objection to myth is that it removes history from language.  It makes particular signs appear natural, eternal, absolute, or frozen.  It thus transforms history into nature.  Its function is to freeze or arrest language.  It usually does this by reducing a complex phenomenon to a few traits which are taken as definitive.  Barthes uses the example of a Basque chalet in Paris, which ostentatiously displays certain signs of what is taken as Basque style, minus other aspects of Basque houses as they would be found in the countryside (it has a sloping roof, but not a barn).

It is crucial to emphasise that Barthes is not saying that all language-use is myth.  He does not believe that myth is necessary.  His social constructivism is also partial. He believes there are things, with specific attributes, separate from their mythical constructions (accessible, perhaps, through denotative language). But a semiotician can only study the signs or myths, not the things. 

According to Barthes, he can tell us about the myth of the goodness of wine, or the way wine is signified as an essence it doesn’t really have.  Wine may, in fact, for contingent reasons of sense-experience, be good.  But a semiotician can’t tell us this. 

In a sense, therefore, this is a negative approach to myth: it breaks down rather than replacing.  One might speculate that eventually, language would need to be reconstructed in a non-mythical way, in order to move beyond myth – perhaps by talking directly of situated experiences, rather than essences.  But this is outside the scope of Barthes’s project.

Crucially, myths remove any role for the reader in constructing meanings.  Myths are received rather than read.  A message which is received rather than read does not require an interpretation through a code.  It only requires a certain cultural knowledge.  (One might add that it also needs a certain form of life corresponding to the resonance of this knowledge).

The consumer of myth must here be differentiated from others who actually do read myths.  To the semiotician, like Barthes, a myth is just an ‘alibi’, a way of covering up the lack of ground which essences really have.  To a producer of myths, such as a newspaper editor choosing a cover photo, they are simply examples or symbols, consciously chosen.  In either case, the myth is not ‘received’ as such.  Both the journalist and the semiotician knows very well that the myth is constructed.

According to Barthes, someone who consumes a myth – such as most tabloid readers – does not see its construction as a myth.  They see the image simply as the presence of the essence it signifies.  For instance, they see in the saluting black soldier the presence of French imperiality.  They are then convinced that what they’ve seen is a fact, a reality, even an experience – as if they’d actually lived it.  It is this kind of reader who reveals the ideological function of myth.

Myths are not read as statements of particular actors, but as outgrowths of nature.  They are seen as providing a natural reason, rather than an explanation or a motivated statement. They are read as ‘innocent’ speech – from which ideology and signification are absent. To consume a myth is not to consume signs, but images, goals and meanings. The signified of connotative myths is ‘hidden’, since it can’t be reconstructed through the language or images used to carry it. The utterance is structured enough to affect the reader, but this reception does not amount to a reading.

According to this reading of myth, a myth occurs only if someone is a true believer who consumes the myth innocently.  This is why, for certain later writers, a postmodern ‘ironic’ reading, which recognises and plays with the constructedness of myths, is deemed subversive. It is also why ironic uses of stereotypes are sometimes differentiated from their simple deployment.  And why the ‘play’ of signs in fields such as the Internet, or reader-response models of global culture, where each user is aware they are appropriating and redeploying signs, is sometimes seen as progressive even if the signs deployed are capitalist, conventional, racist, etc.

Barthes sees myth as functioning in a similar way to Althusserian interpellation . It calls out to the person who receives it, like a command or a statement of fact.  The content of the injunction is to identify the sign with the essence.

In fact, mythical signs look as if they have been created on the spot, for the viewer. They look like they are simply there to perform their role in the myth. The history which causes or creates them is rendered invisible.

Myth is parasitical on language.  It requires the meaning of the initial sign for its power, but at the same time it denies this specificity, making it seem indisputable and natural, rather than contingent. There is always a remainder of denotation without which the connotation could not exist. 

It is only because of this remnant of denotation that the connotation can naturalise something. It is as if it needs the innocence of denotation to pose as innocent itself. Meaning is thus torn between nature and culture, denotation and connotation.

It also has a tendency to empty language. It removes signs from their context, hiding the process of attaching signifier to signified. It thus strips signs of their richness and specificity. The function of myth is to empty reality of the appearance of history and of social construction. The initial sign is ‘rich’ in history. Myth functions by depriving it of history and turning it into an empty form to carry a different meaning.

If the ‘political’ is taken to encompass all human relations in their actual structure, as power to transform the world, then myth is depoliticised speech – the active stripping of politics from speech. Usage (or doing) is mistakenly portrayed as nature (or being).

This draining of history strips represented phenomena of their content.  What is actually a contextually specific action is taken to stand for something else: a timeless, eternal essence.  This is termed the ‘concept’ of the myth.  Barthes expresses it by adding -ness or -ity onto ordinary words.

This emptying is also a kind of filling. The concept carried by a myth appears to be eternal and absolute. In fact, the concept carried by a myth implants into the sign an entire history and perspective. It speaks to a very specific group of readers. It corresponds closely to its function. For instance, it refers back to particular stereotypes embedded in gender, racial, or class hierarchies.

What is put into the myth as meaning is always in excess over what remains of the meaning of the sign itself. An entire history or perspective is put into the concept which the mythical sign signifies. On the other hand, the image or example itself is almost incidental. There is a constant rotation of mythical images and significations. Myth functions like a turnstyle which constantly offers up signs and their mythical meanings.  The sign is emptied so that it can present a meaning (the concept) which is absent but full.

As a result of myth, people are constantly plunged into a false nature which is actually a constructed system. Semiotic analysis of myth is a political act, establishing the freedom of language from the present system and unveiling the constructedness of social realities. The contingent, historical, socially constructed capitalist system comes to seem as ‘life’, ‘the world’, ‘the way it is’.

One way to become aware of myths is to consider how they would seem, from the standpoint of whatever they represent. Myth is always clear when seen from the standpoint of the signifier which has been robbed. For instance, the mythical nature of the use of the image of the black soldier is apparent if the soldier’s actual narrative is known or considered.

Another aspect of the functioning of myth is that it refuses the explanatory or analytical level. It states facts and posits values, but it does not use theories to explain social phenomena. Facts are taken as self-present, not as mysteries to be explained. The statement of facts or values without explaining them gives an illusory clarity, making it seem that they are obvious, they go without saying.

Barthes lists seven common techniques or figures of myth:

1) Inoculation – admitting a little bit of evil in an institution so as to ward off awareness of its fundamental problems.  For instance, admitting the existence of ‘a few bad eggs’ in the police so as to cover up the abusive nature of official police practices.

2) Removing history – making it seem like social phenomena simply ‘exist’ or are there for the viewer’s gaze, eliminating both causality and agency.  Neoliberalism, for instance, is often treated as ‘globalisation’ or ‘modernisation’, as an abstract economic necessity rather than a political strategy.

3) Identification of the other with the self – projecting inner characteristics onto the other.  For instance, in trials, treating a deviant person as a version of the self which has gone astray, based on a view of crime as rooted in human nature.  The actual person, their motives and meanings are written out of such accounts.

4) Tautology – treating the failure of language as expressing the essence of a thing – “theatre is theatre”, “Racine is Racine”, or “just because, is all”.  Barthes believes this device is an order not to think.

5) Neither-norism – refusing radical differences between phenomena by combining them in a kind of middle ground marked by immobility and permanence.  The Third Way is a current example.

6) Quantification of quality – treating differences in kind as differences in degree.

7) Statements of fact without explanation – ‘that’s just the way it is’.  The idea of ‘common sense’ is used to command the pursuit of truth to stop at a certain point.

Click here for Part One of the series on Barthes. Part three of the series on Barthes is published next week.

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book  Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His ‘In Theory’ column appears every other Friday.

19 Comments

An A to Z of Theory Roland Barthes and Semiotics – Ceasefire Magazine Sep 30, 2011 13:29

[…] Part two of the series on Barthes is published next week. […]

Six essays from Ceasefire on Barthes by Andrew Robinson « Te Ipu Pakore: The Broken Vessel Dec 12, 2011 18:59

[…] Roland Barthes’s Mythologies: A Critical Theory of Myths (30 Sep. 2011), […]

Soleil O (Med Hondo, France/Mauritania, 1967) | Pale Justice Aug 20, 2012 15:02

[…] “One day I started studying your writing” the protagonist tells us over a cut to his image, the image of modern colonised man. The shot is an invocation of Barthes’ happy negro from his essay, Mythologies. Our protagonist is happy to travel to France. The colonial mindset is evident through his idealised vision of a country he considers home, despite having never been there. On this transnational scale France itself has become the point of emanation, the power which exerts cultural hegemony over other nations. In this scene the idealised “France” is allegorised in the shape of an innocent blonde girl, who approaches the protagonist in the street and offers him bread. (Barthes and mythologies here: in-theory-barthes-2). […]

Another Seeing: Reflections on Photography and Writing « The Bronsk Commons Oct 9, 2012 23:40

[…] I recently read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. A fan of Barthes’ Mythologies, I knew Barthes would be an interesting bridge between my interests. But published in 1981, this […]

Sam Oct 26, 2012 20:33

Where did you find the list of seven common figures of myth ? There are no references in your articles.

Samu Jan 1, 2013 16:19

Very interesting article. Better than reading the wikipedia for Barthes or his Mythologies. Waiting for the third part.

Robb May 4, 2013 3:56

Wondering the same thing as Sam – where did the list come from?

Mary Oct 13, 2013 21:20

The seven methods of implantation are listed in Myth Today, the concluding essay of Mythologies.

“Myth Today” – Roland Barthes | test test one two three Sep 29, 2014 5:51

[…] A Critical Theory of Myths, Ceasefire Magazine […]

Read more about Myth | test test one two three Oct 6, 2014 2:52

Photography and Electoral Appeal | Higgledy Piggledy Oct 14, 2014 15:47

[…] part of my Introduction to Higher Education I had to read an extract from Roland Barthes‘s Mythologies. My extract Photography and Electoral Appeal. Barthes believes that photography is a fundamental […]

Signification and Language | Kathryn Donaldson Dec 3, 2014 10:23

[…] Roland Barthes Mythologies: A Critical Theory of Myths. [online] Ceasefire Magazine. Available at: https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-barthes-2/ [Accessed 3 Dec. […]

Victorian Monsters? Strategies of Appropriation in the Neo-Victorian Mashup | The Victorianist: BAVS Postgraduates May 18, 2015 12:36

[…] Barthes has a great deal to say about the way history and tradition become myth.[iv] For Barthes, mythologies are formed to […]

Victorian Monsters? Strategies of Appropriation in the Neo-Victorian Mashup - Angels and Apes Oct 15, 2015 9:38

[…] Barthes has a great deal to say about the way history and tradition become myth. For Barthes, mythologies are formed to perpetuate […]

On myth & movement(s) – À table Apr 20, 2016 3:20

[…] is just such a richly fluid ideal (in time: a movement; in space: a link) that Roland Barthes exposes in his brief depiction of basic semiological chains, and later mourns in his playful […]

Signs – Johanna.Blaha Apr 23, 2016 12:15

[…] An A to Z of Theory Roland Barthes’s Mythologies: A Critical Theory of Myths […]

Women Who Kill: Wake Up and Smell the Roses – Intersectionally Feminist as Fuck Feb 11, 2017 6:19

[…] Z of Theory Roland Barthe’s Mythologies: A Critical           Theory of Myths.” Ceasefire, https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-barthes-2/ Accessed 10 February […]

sunset debris – Bricks and Clicks Feb 16, 2017 10:39

[…] https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-barthes-2/ […]

An Animated Introduction to Roland Barthes’s Mythologies and How He Used Semiotics to Decode Popular Culture | ① Download punk music albums for free ! Apr 5, 2017 3:40

[…] work on myths,” writes Andrew Robinson at Ceasefire Magazine, “prefigures discourse-analysis in media studies.” He directed his focus to […]

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Myth: A Very Short Introduction (1st edn)

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7 (page 113) p. 113 Myth and structure

  • Published: July 2004
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‘Myth and structure’ examines the contributions of Claude Lévi-Strauss to the study of myth. Lévi-Strauss treats myth as a coldly intellectual phenomenon: the oppositions expressed in myth constitute logical puzzles rather than existential predicaments. In calling his approach to myth ‘structuralist’, Lévi-Strauss intends to distinguish it from ‘narrative’ interpretations, or those that adhere to the plot of myth. In Lévi-Strauss' unique brand of myth-ritualism, myths and rituals operate together, but as structural opposites rather than, as for other myth-ritualists, parallels. The contradictions expressed in myth are of innumerable kinds. All, however, are apparently reducible to instances of the fundamental contradiction between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’.

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Myth & Mythology Essay Examples & Topics

A myth is a traditional story that attempts to explain a natural or social phenomenon. It usually combines historical events with fantasy. Such stories had appeared long before people learned to read and write; they passed from generation to generation through oral tradition. As a result, there is no single author of any myth, and there cannot be one.

An essay about mythology can reflect the reasons that brought ancient people to compose such stories. For this purpose, you should understand the natural phenomena, human relationships, and religious rites the myth describes. Your essay relies on analyzing the lessons people wanted to teach their descendants. That’s why you should see the differences between the ancient and modern vision of reality.

To better understand what is expected from you writing a myth essay, you’ll need topic ideas and some guidance. You will find both in this article, prepared by our experts . Below, you can also find some helpful myth essay examples.

Mythology Essay: The Key Concepts

It is better to know how myth differs from similar kinds of literary pieces. In this section, we’ll focus on mythology, legends, and folklore. Note that they are hard to classify and frequently overlap in many aspects.

  • Describe ancient times.
  • Regarded as sacred truth.
  • Perceived as facts.
  • Characters are supernatural forces and beings.
  • Describe historical times.
  • Regarded as history.
  • Are partially factual.
  • Characters are historical figures described as heroes.
  • Never specifies the time.
  • Regarded as secular art.
  • Are devoid of facts.
  • Characters are fictional figures or animals.

Myth Essay & How to Write It

So how should you write an essay about mythology? We have prepared a step-by-step guide.

Following this plan will help you get the highest mark:

  • Select a topic or myth to write about. If your tutor hasn’t limited you in the scope of questions to discuss in your writing, try to select a subject or angle of analysis that inspires you.
  • Investigate your material. Be sure to check if you can access sufficient materials on the topic you’ve selected. If not, move to the previous point. Take notes and use bookmarks with explanations. It will save you much time later. Also, make a summary of the most important passages.
  • Formulate your thesis statement. What would you like to tell the reader of your essay? Formulate the message of your writing. Explain what you want to convey in one concise and meaningful sentence.
  • Outline your paper. Envision it as a five-paragraph essay. It is often efficient to start from the main body that relies on your thesis, move to the introduction, and finalize the conclusion. List your arguments and one counterargument (if it is a persuasive essay). Think about which background information suits your introduction and which conclusion you will reach in the end.
  • Include the myths or historical facts. It is a mythology essay, remember? Make sure you’ve referenced the primary sources. Historical facts will add plausibility to your reasoning.
  • Write and edit. Follow your outline and correct it if necessary. Never grudge time for revising and editing as it can save your paper.

15 Myth Essay Ideas & Topics

It is high time to decide what you will write about. The topics are not limited to ancient times if your assignment does not indicate the contrary. So, here you can find unique ideas for a myth essay from modern to personal mythology.

Our list is as follows:

  • Reasons why the Greeks imagined Zeus as an unfaithful husband.
  • Did myths transform into science or religion?
  • The story of Batman in The Dark Knight as a myth.
  • Compare and contrast Disney’s Hercules vs. the myth versions.
  • What is a myth from the point of view of Indian mythology?
  • How does Norse mythology describe the world’s creation, and what does it tell us about the Norse mentality?
  • Why do we no longer create myths, or do we just call them differently?
  • What is the central conflict in all Greek mythology?
  • Why was love so crucial in mythical gods’ relationships, and what does it tell us about ancient people?
  • How did the Iroquois creation myth explain the appearance of the first people, and how different was it from the Christian tradition?
  • How does the myth of Gilgamesh explain the human perception of immortality?
  • What are the myths that we encounter in our daily lives, and why are they no longer considered sacred?
  • The sexism and the role of women in Greek mythology.
  • Why was warfare the essential part of Norse myths?
  • Can superhero movies be classified as myths, legends, or folklore?

We hope our advice and topics will bring you to an A+ essay. Below we have collected the best myth essay examples for your inspiration. Share the page with your peers who may need our tips.

213 Best Mythology Essay Examples

Relationships between gods and mortals in greco-roman mythology, roman and the greek god apollo differences.

  • Words: 1126

Gilgamesh: The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell (The Monomyth)

Ancient greek mythical characters, “the homeric hymn to demeter” by homer review, the roman creation myth.

  • Words: 1040

Baal’s Qualities in Christian Demonology

  • Words: 2247

Norse Cosmogony: “The Creation, Death, and Rebirth of the Universe” Summary

  • Words: 1933

The Role of Poets and the place of Poetry in Ancient Greece

  • Words: 1227

Ancient Civilizations: Odysseus’ Loyalty to Penelope

Hercules in greek mythology, myths: types of allegory and historical periods, the belief in the legend of king arthur, the ancient greek tragedy “antigone”, greek and roman perspectives on male friendship in mythology, the traditional and modern myths.

  • Words: 2097

Zeus’ Mythology

The main idea of “oedipus rex” by sophocles, the issue of “man’s relationship with the divine” in greek mythology.

  • Words: 1115

Saint Claus Myth

  • Words: 1087

Classical Mythology: Rats in Greek Mythology

  • Words: 1744

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang: Novel Analysis

Supernatural explanations in mythology to natural events, justice and inequality in oedipus rex and antigone.

  • Words: 1136

Athena and Gender Roles in Greek Mythology

  • Words: 1608

Ovid’s Metamorphoses Analysis

  • Words: 2644

Medusa in Greek Mythology

Comparative mythology. ugaritic myths of anat and baal.

  • Words: 2525

The Suffering Women in Greek Mythology

  • Words: 2973

Semiology in “Myth Today” by Roland Barthes

  • Words: 1673

Important Virtues in Human Life: Plato’s Protagoras and Hesiod’s Works and Days

Underworld in greek and roman mythology.

  • Words: 1642

Rowling’s “Harry Potter” Books in Connection to Mythology

  • Words: 1509

Mythology’s Role in the Ancient Greece – God Poseidon

  • Words: 1118

Mythology. Dogon: The First Words

  • Words: 2204

The Circular Ruins

Perseus: a hero of greek mythology, researching of the ring of gyges, death in the epic of gilgamesh and egyptian book of the dead, mythological and modern-day heroes, heroes and gods of the greek myths, love in the “metamorphoses” by ovid.

  • Words: 1166

The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Ancient Egyptian Culture

Apollo and daphne in ovid’s metamorphoses, the theme of love in the myth of cupid and psyche, “oedipus rex”: the gods’ role in human affairs, homer’s odysseus and penelope: who is wiser.

  • Words: 1483

Pride in Ancient Greek

Prometheus: the protector and benefactor of mankind, the five standard types of creation myths, sacrifice, punishment, and suffering in aeschylus’ “prometheus bound”, three human qualities displayed by sophocles’ “oedipus”, apollonian and dionysian in euripides’ “bacchae”.

  • Words: 1285

Mythology: Trickster as a Human Condition

Themis goddess and her archetype, mythology as a means to understand the power relations between men and women.

  • Words: 1675

Navajo Stories: Changing Woman Myth

The archetype of “trickster”: ancient and modern, dragon combats in greek culture.

  • Words: 1124

Zhong Kui, the Keeper of Hearth and Home: Japanese Myth with Buddhist Philosophy

  • Words: 1716

“The Epic of Gilgamesh” and COVID-19 Pandemic

The significance of myths nowadays, the iliad: religion and beliefs, myth cycles in american gods by neil gaiman.

  • Words: 1389

The Ideal Relationship in Ramayana

The downfall of pentheus: the clash of a monarch and a god.

  • Words: 1138

The God of Love in Greek & Roman Mythology

Myths: daphne and ahalya. greek and indian culture mythology.

  • Words: 1623

One Eye Character in the Valhalla Rising Film

Analysis of fuentes’s “the myth of race”.

  • Words: 1104

Human Belief in Myths and Legends

Why to believe in the legend of king arthur, the story of the garden of eden: reinventing eden, la llorona, a mexican folktale, the demeter and persephone stories, “the odyssey” by homer as a vehicle for creative works, heroic quests in sundiata and popol vuh, how sundiata and popol vuh depict a hero’s quest motif, the myth of king minos and the minotaur, main character and idea of “the epic of gilgamesh”, the hero with a thousand faces by campbell, campbell’s “the hero with a thousand faces”, mythology and morphology of prometheus, quote explanation from “the epic of gilgamesh”, mayan and egyptian myth of creation comparison.

  • Words: 1186

Heroism and the Spirit of Adventure: The Odyssey and Gilgamesh Interpretation

The epic of gilgamesh: analysis, “antigone”: evaluation and synthesis, the figure of hector in homer’s “the iliad”, hubris (pride) of odysseus and oedipus, telemachus: the son of ithaca tsar, odysseus, and penelope, neoclassicism and aurora and cephalus (1811), inferior characters in “the golden age” by apuleius.

  • Words: 2278

Antigone Reflection and Analysis

Achilles’ traits and greeks’ perception of heroism, the similarities and differences between hippolytus and narcissus, medea in greek mythology: literary analysis, plot analysis of homer’s the odyssey, classical epos of beowulf and gardner’s work connection.

  • Words: 1129

Mythology: The Tragic Hero in Antigone

  • Words: 1130

Mythological and Story-Telling Traditions

“myths about suicide” by thomas joiner, antigone reading response, female power in male-dominated greek myths, the portrayal of women by marie de france and ovid, ”the iliad of homer” by homer: a reflection of the culture and moral principles that existed at that time, the contrast of odysseus as a character, political concerns in greek mythology, myths and legends: concepts of ancient myths and modern scientific thoughts.

  • Words: 1316

Ancient Greek Mythology: Deities of the Universe

The ghosts in henry james’s the turn of the screw, “of water and spirit” by malidoma patrice somé: magic and ritual.

  • Words: 1082

Campbell’s “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”

  • Words: 1303

Mythology: Term Definition

  • Words: 2297

Myths: a Very Big Impact in the Lives of Human Beings

  • Words: 1438

The Aeneid by Virgil

Creation myths in american tradition.

  • Words: 1478

Changes in Monkey by Wu Ch’eng-en

Mythology of the mongols. a lecture for librarians.

myth theory essay

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Wise, lucky, terrifying: The surprising 4,000-year history of dragons

An illuminated red-and-golden dragon at a festival in China (Credit: Getty Images)

Today marks the Lunar New Year heralding the year of the dragon – or does it? The Chinese word " lóng ", or 龍, is usually translated into English as "dragon". But don't let the connection mislead you: lucky, ethereal Chinese dragons are very different beasts to the stomping, fire-breathing monsters of English mythology.

They are associated with wind rather than fire, for a start – the Chinese word for tornado (lóng juǎn fēng) translates word for word as " swirling-dragon-wind ". And Chinese dragons are also different to the regal Sumerian "ušum-gal", a mythical, lion-jawed, snake-bodied creature from the ancient Middle East. Around the world, and in many different languages, people have come up with words that more or less mean dragon – but how they picture them, and whether they see these beings as sacred, friendly, deadly, or just a bit annoying, varies hugely across cultures.

These dragon-like creatures do have one thing in common: they tend to share traits with real-life animals, and reflect our interactions with and feelings about the natural world. Here's a trip through history in pursuit of these global dragon myths and their real-life inspiration – and what they can teach us about our own relationship with nature.

A mythological dragon creature called "mušhuššu" in Akkadian, depicted on the Ishtar Gate from Babylon (Credit: Getty Images)

A mythological dragon creature called "mušhuššu" in Akkadian, depicted on the Ishtar Gate from Babylon (Credit: Getty Images)

The oldest word for dragon?

More than 4,000 years ago, a scribe in ancient Mesopotamia – the Middle Eastern region that is now part of Iraq – wrote a curious word on a clay tablet: " ušum-gal ". The word is in Sumerian , humanity's oldest written language, and is believed to be the oldest known word for dragon. It's composed of the words " gal " (big) and "ušum" (" snake ").

But what kind of creature is an "ušum-gal", actually – and does it have a still-living, real-life counterpart in the Middle East?

Sumerian texts suggest it was a mythical creature inspired by snakes but also lions, says Jay Crisostomo, a professor of ancient Middle Eastern civilisations and languages at the University of Michigan, whose work includes deciphering and translating original Sumerian clay documents.

"It is one of several mythical creatures [in Sumerian culture] that combined various animals and typically conveyed traits related to wisdom, power and protection," he says. "The ušum-gal is especially noted for its mouth, so presumably had a large, gaping maw."

Some dragon myths may have been inspired by lions, which were once widespread (Credit: Getty Images)

Some dragon myths may have been inspired by lions, which were once widespread (Credit: Getty Images)

In Sumerian texts, the word ušum-gal is often used as a metaphor for a lion or in conjunction with lions as part of a royal fearsome trait, Crisostomo continues. "For example a hymn to the moon god Suen proclaims: 'Born in the mountains and coming forth in joy, he is a powerful force, a lion, a 'dragon' (ušum-gal), a mighty lord. Suen, (with a) mouth like a 'dragon's', ruler of Ur!'"

The word also depicts a creature that rules over others and can only be defeated by the most powerful humans, he adds: "Some stories envision the god or the king as so powerful that even ušumgal do not dare leave the plains/desert or step into his path. I imagine that the ušum-gal was probably originally a type of lion or other wild carnivore and gradually adopted more mythological associations over hundreds of years."

Sumerian does not have any modern-day descendants. But speakers of Akkadian, an ancient Semitic language related to modern-day Arabic and Hebrew, borrowed the Sumerian word and used it as "ušumgallu", which has been translated as 'lion-dragon', Cristostomo says. In Akkadian culture, this lion-dragon creature was worshipped as a divine being, he says: "Another mythological dragon creature in Akkadian is mušhuššu (loaned from Sumerian muš huš 'fierce snake'); this creature is translated 'dragon' and is famously depicted on the Ishtar Gate from Babylon."

He concludes: "So is ušum-gal the oldest known word for dragon? Possibly. It was certainly a creature with traits that overlap our idea of dragons. A powerful, awe-inspiring creature that gods and kings would happily be associated with, a creature imbued with legend and a bit of mystery. If that's a dragon, then a dragon is an ušum-gal."

Lion statues and carvings from that era have survived into the modern day. A reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate , with some remaining fragments of it from its original home in Babylon, is now in a museum in Berlin. But what of the real-life lions that once roamed the ancient Middle East? We can't know for sure exactly which lion the Sumerians were referring to. But two Asian lion subgroups that were once relatively widespread are now mostly extinct, except for a small population in India .

A Chinese alligator (Credit: Getty Images)

A Chinese alligator (Credit: Getty Images)

Let's Talk

Let's Talk  is a month-long series of language coverage across BBC.com, exploring the ancient roots of alphabets, jargon-busting the modern boardroom, and seeking to understand why we speak the way we do. Browse the whole series  here .

China's dragon of change

While English dragons spew fire and do battle with angels , Chinese dragons are sacred beings. Soaring wingless through the clouds, expelling wind not flames, they symbolise luck and blessings.

Numerous academic theories exist as to the origin of the mythic Chinese dragon, says Marco Meccarelli, a lecturer at the University of Catania in Italy. These start with the idea that they were totemic symbols used by some prehistoric clans – and were inspired, in turn, by real-world snakes, or perhaps a giant oceanic python. When this tribal society became class-based, Meccarelli writes in Discovering the Long , the dragon became a symbol of rulers.

A second set of theories links the legends to a crocodilian species, such as the Chinese alligator . Seven thousand years ago, the marshy floodplains of the lower Yangtze River was an alligator haven. But as farmers turned their habitat into rice fields, the species declined. Today it is among the most endangered crocodilians in the world.

Chinese dragon myths may have been inspired by the spiralling forms of lightning

Dragon images may have evolved from attempts to replicate the noise and spiralling forms of thunder and lightning, and were prayed to for good weather, says Meccarelli. This weather link could help explain the linguistic association of tornadoes and swirling dragons in Chinese, as mentioned before. Alternatively, the fourth approach, according to Meccarelli, suggests dragons evolved from the worship of nature itself and they are an amalgamation of numerous animals and weather phenomena.

Roel Sterckx, professor of Chinese history, science and civilisation at the University of Cambridge, supports this latter theory – and is sceptical about attempts to link Chinese dragons to individual real-life animals. "A great deal of nonsense has been written on the origins of the Chinese dragon, ranging from scientists trying to identify it as some type of alligator or other amphibian to epigraphers trying to interpret the graph for 'long' as a pictograph of some sort of reptilian creature," he tells the BBC . "The truth is all of this is speculation and the main point is that the Chinese dragon is a hybrid incorporating features and locomotion of all animals in one." In other words, the dragon is an embodiment, not of a singular entity, but of the very capacity for change.

A painting titled 'Saint George and the Dragon' by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475), an Italian painter and a mathematician (Credit: Getty Images)

A painting titled 'Saint George and the Dragon' by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475), an Italian painter and a mathematician (Credit: Getty Images)

England's "dragon villages"

In AD793, " fiery dragons " soared across Northumbrian skies – a bad omen . A vicious and devastating Viking raid followed on the northern English island of Lindisfarne, sending shockwaves across Europe.

Anglo-Saxon stories are rife with ferocious dragons, slumbering in dens beneath hills, guarding their treasure . The legends live on in many English place names. Take Dragley Beck , a hamlet in Lancashire, and Drakelow , a village in Derbyshire. Both could mean "dragon's mound", or " dragon-hill ".

Historically, English has two common words for dragon: dragon, and the now rarely-used, ancient word wyrm. The word "dragon" is derived from the Latin " draco " meaning serpent, or sea fish. Meanwhile, in Christian religious texts, " dragon " also referred to the devil . This mythological creature took on different qualities and shapes throughout history, for example as a fire-breathing dragon called a " firedrake ".

" Wyrm ", on the other hand, is a slithering, crawling creature, not a winged, flying, fiery one one. " Wyrm " also referred to parasites, snakes and grave-dwelling creatures in early medieval England. It inspired myths such as that of the child-eating Lambton Worm . This creeping creature was more common in English folklore than the winged version, and lurked in caves, marshes or fens .

"The wyrm has no legs, but slithers like a serpent," says Carolyne Larrington, professor of medieval European literature at the University of Oxford. It is different from the fiery, winged monsters: "The firedrake can fly and shoot flames," Larrington adds, "while the wyrm spits poison".

Real-life snakes, says Larrington, may have inspired the myths. "People have [also] suggested that dinosaur fossils might have played a part. But there's no real correlation between dragon stories and fossil finds," she says. A snake-inspired myth may have made its way to England from abroad: there is some evidence that the dragon motif has migrated with the movement of humans.

Today, Britain’s only venomous snake, the adder , is in decline with intensive agriculture destroying habitats and causing populations to become fragmented and isolated. English dragons on the other hand, says Larrington, are usually invulnerable and symbolise power. "You have to find their weak spot to kill them," she says.

Whether your own idea of dragons is as swirling, spiralling symbols of luck or as giant slithering worms, the Lunar New Year could be a good opportunity for looking out for their traces in your own language, everyday life and environment – and perhaps, marvel at the collective act of imagination and appreciation of nature that gave rise to these fabulous creatures.

Reporting by India Bourke, Katherine Latham and Sophie Hardach

If you liked this story,  sign up for The Essential List newsletter  – a handpicked selection of features, videos and can't-miss news delivered to your inbox every Friday.

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myth theory essay

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What Is the Difference Between Myth and Theory?

What Is the Difference Between Myth and Theory?

What’s the difference between myths and theories? Well that’s an easy question to answer isn’t it; myths involve fiction while theories involve facts, we should not make any parallels between science and superstition. There, we’ve answered the question, or have we? Although many people will agree that myth and theory are two totally different things, I would debate that the line between the two is much thinner than one would think. In fact in some cases the line is inexistent and myths make up theory, just as theory can be the root of myths.

Before I go any further, I should make the definitions of theory and myth clear. Theories are a group of tested propositions, which are regarded as correct; theories can be used as a principle of explanation and prediction for certain type of phenomena. A myth on the other hand, is an invented traditional or legendary story usually involving fictitious characters and events. Knowing these definitions how is it possible for the two to be in any way similar? To illustrate this idea that theories and myths are, sometimes, the same thing, I will use one of the most famous theories in the world, the theory of evolution.

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Now this theory is considered as truth to most people in the world, but many fervent religious believers would disagree. They will view their religion’s respective creation stories as the absolute truth and will consider the theory of evolution as a myth. So where does the truth lie, is the creation story a myth or a theory? I believe it is both, the creation story is a myth based on theory. And I believe that’s the case for most myths and theories. Every myth comes from some form of theory, just as every theory is part myth.

A really good example is the following, hundreds of years ago, men believed the earth was flat, and that if you traveled far enough, you could fall off of the edge of the world. That was a theory; everyone took it to be true. It is not until Columbus circumnavigated the earth that this theory was disproven; today this is one of the most well-known myths, the idea that the world is flat. But what does that teach us, that a myth today was a theory hundreds of years ago. How can we know a theory is really a theory and not just a myth?

The same goes for myths, take the TV show “the mythbusters” on Discovery Channel; their whole show is dedicated to cracking myths. Hundreds of myths have been turned into theories thanks to them, just has hundreds of myths have been confirmed as myths. Quick example of a ‘true’ myth, it turns out elephants are really scared of mice. What does that tell us? It tells us that a myth could very well be a hidden theory. The problem with the argument presented above is that it is based on a misuse of the words myth and theory. If a myth is proven to be true and becomes a theory, then it is not a myth anymore.

Well in fact it never was a myth, although everyone thought and referred to it as a myth, it was during all this time a theory. The same applies to theories, people who believed that the world was flat was a theory, actually believed in a myth, although for them that myth was theory. The problem here, is how do we know a myth is truly a myth, and how do we know a theory is truly a theory? Unfortunately, in most cases, there is no way to know for sure which is which, and that’s how some people get confused between myths and theories; which is where the first argument comes from.

This confusion does not mean in any way that myths and theories are the same though; in fact they are opposites of each other. What we do know is that for every myth of theory there is a true myth or theory hiding behind it. The theory that the earth is spherical and not flat, that is absolutely true, it cannot be disproven; I’d like to call that, a true theory. The same applies to myths, the myths of Greek demigods are ‘true’ myths, meaning they are in no ways theories based on true facts.

So, if we were to take into account only ‘true’ theories and ‘true’ myths, we realize how vastly different they are. Myth is based on superstition, for example: seeing a black cat brings bad luck or the idea that the big foot exists, all those are superstitions. Theories come from the science realm, they are based on testing and theorizing and followed by evaluation and rethinking until the truth is reached. Theories do most often come from the science realm, I agree with that. But doesn’t a scientific theory which is disproven become a myth?

In a hundred years’ time we will know so much more in the field of science than we do today; things that today we view as myths such as the flying car, in 50 years they will be theory. The contrary, a theory becoming myth in the field of science is a little less common because science flirts with the truth most of the time. But there are a few examples of scientific theories becoming myths, examples which just prove that myth and theory really isn’t so different from each other. The most famous example is also a very current one; Einstein’s theory of relativity is and has been viewed for a long time as the absolute truth.

For the sake of the essay I won’t go into what that theory is about, we just have to know that Einstein is recognized as one of the smartest man ever to live, he is the father of great scientific discoveries and advancements. What Einstein says and backs up with scientific evidence has to be true. But it isn’t, scientist are on the verge of making one of the greatest discoveries if all times, the Higgs Boson, a boson that is believed to give all matter in the universe its size and shape. If they were to prove its existence, Einstein’s theory of relativity would be disproven.

Again, there is a lot of complicated science behind all this, but all that needs to be known is that even science is a tangible subject. So what is Einstein’s theory of relativity? Is it a theory because it is backed up by scientific evidence and experimenting; or is it a myth, something Einstein invented in order to explain the world in the way he thought to be true. In fact, Einstein’s theory of relativity is not much different to the myths of creation stories when you think of it, it is yet another way to explain and understand our world.

Myth and theory, as we refer to them today, aren’t that different at all from each other, we just don’t know it. Yes they differ in their actual definitions and that’s where people go wrong, if a myth is similar to a theory that means that it’s not a real myth. Myth is superstition while theory is science. When put into practice though, their differences don’t seem so clear anymore; every myth has a little bit of theory, while every theory has a little bit of myth.

It is very rare to have one or another on its own because we can never totally prove a myth is a myth; how can we disprove that Zeus never existed? We can’t; same applies to theories, we saw that even in science, the least flawed subject, a theory can be proven to be simply just a myth. Unfortunately we can’t usually discern one another for sure, so we leave it to the person to make their minds on whether a certain thing is a theory, or a myth.

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Guest Essay

What a Split in Consumer Confidence Means for Biden

myth theory essay

By Nate Silver

Mr. Silver writes the newsletter Silver Bulletin.

We look to be headed for what could be the most unpopular sequel since “ Home Alone 3 ”: Biden versus Trump 2.0.

One question goes to the heart of shaping expectations for that matchup: Why does everyone think the economy stinks? The answer is critical, given that this election is probably going to be close and that a variety of research suggests that the incumbent party’s chances are better when the economy is going well. President Biden, trailing Donald Trump in early polls , will need all the economic tailwind he can get.

Many commentators on the left have focused on a purported gap between what they see as objective data signaling a strong economy (in particular, persistently low unemployment ) and middling to poor consumer sentiment, as in the University of Michigan’s monthly survey . This gap is sometimes attributed to partisanship — Republican voters being unwilling to give any credit to Mr. Biden — and at other times to media bias or misinformation driven by social media .

But a more careful look at the numbers reveals a different answer, and it requires no great mystery to solve, no inexplicable gap in the data.

Consumers don’t think the economy stinks. Rather, they quite rationally have mixed feelings about this economy — and they’ll reveal different things depending on exactly what you ask them.

They are pessimistic about the future, but that’s a matter of prediction, not misinterpreting the current economic situation. And here’s the good news for Mr. Biden: They’ve noticed that the data has been improving.

The terms “consumer sentiment” and “consumer confidence” are sometimes used interchangeably, but in fact, they reflect two distinct, longstanding monthly surveys often cited by economists. First, there’s the University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment and, second, the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Survey .

One is not inherently better than the other. The best approach, as I usually recommend with polls, is to average them. They actually show rather different things: The Michigan numbers are bearish (although growing less so), and the Conference Board’s are bullish. That’s because they focus on different parts of the economy .

The Michigan survey puts a lot of weight on voter assessment of pocketbook conditions , like whether it’s a good time to buy major household items. The Conference Board, meanwhile, asks consumers for their appraisal of the employment and business outlook but nothing that really gets directly at things like consumer prices.

Also, and this is often overlooked: In both surveys, the majority of the questions are about voters’ predictions about future economic conditions and not how they think the economy is doing at the moment. For example, the Michigan survey asks about the possibility of a severe economic downturn over the next five years — a question that is notoriously hard even for professional economists to answer.

Fortunately, instead of one measure of consumer confidence, Michigan and the Conference Board publish separate subindexes, one focused on consumers’ perceptions of current conditions and the other about their outlook for the future. So we actually have four measures: two major surveys each asking two varieties of big-picture questions.

In these surveys, from January 1978 to January 2021, consumers’ assessments of current conditions usually tracked each other well. But in summer 2021, they began to diverge — and not just a little but hugely.

For the graphic below, I’m normalizing these four data series such that they’re all on the same scale, with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 20. This just means we can make an apples-to-apples comparison. A score of 100 represents the average consumer outlook between 1978 and 2024.

myth theory essay

Consumer confidence in current conditions

Less confidence

More confidence

of Michigan

Consumer confidence was slow to recover following the 1990-91 recession

The mood reached record highs during the buoyant economic growth of the late '90s

An unprecedented combination of rapid job growth and high inflation has caused consumer confidence measures to diverge

Biden’s

inauguration

myth theory essay

The mood reached record highs during the buoyant economic growth of the late ’90s

business conditions

myth theory essay

Sources: University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment, Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Survey

Note: Survey results normalized to an average score of 100 and a standard deviation of 20 points.

Why the divergence? The Michigan survey’s questions are highly sensitive to inflation, whereas the Conference Board’s are not. And spring 2021 is when inflation really began to ramp up , as a white-hot-recovery summer ran headlong into supply chain disruptions, the Delta variant and an injection of stimulus cash that led people to splurge on everything from revenge travel to meme stocks . It was a deeply strange economy — good for businesses and good for job seekers but sometimes awful for consumers.

So while the Conference Board numbers have consistently been above average, at roughly a score of 120 on my normalized scale, the Michigan ones took longer to recover. However, they have rebounded recently, reflecting a deceleration of inflation since roughly mid-2023, perking up to 82 on my adjusted scale in the January 2024 reading after having bottomed out at 41 in June 2022.

If you’re wondering why a rebound took so long — or why the numbers are still below average — there are a lot of good explanations. First, although inflation numbers when reported in the news typically focus on the year-over-year change, that’s not necessarily how consumers see them. Prices in December 2023 were only 3 percent higher than they were a year earlier, but they were 10 percent higher than they were two years earlier and about 18 percent higher than three years ago.

It takes some time for consumers to adjust to the new normal. Historically, Michigan consumer sentiment is more closely correlated with the two-year change in inflation than the one-year shift. If so, the timing could work out well for Mr. Biden, since the period of peak inflation will be farther in the rearview mirror by the time people vote this November.

But it’s a mistake to assume that consumers have just been reacting to news accounts of high gasoline or fast-food prices instead of actually observing the impact on their bottom lines. People’s pocketbooks really aren’t in great shape — income growth has struggled to keep up with inflation.

myth theory essay

Per capita disposable income

COVID stimulus payments temporarily boosted disposable income

Inflation-adjusted income has barely grown during Biden’s term

myth theory essay

Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis

Note: Income shown in inflation-adjusted 2017 dollars

Per capita disposable income is historically one of the variables that most accurately predicts election outcomes. Although heavily affected by the timing of Covid stimulus payments, nothing about this data suggests that consumers have had a smooth economic ride under Mr. Biden. While corporate profits have soared to record levels , Americans quickly spent down the savings they built up during the pandemic.

It’s not just that goods have cost more; people have also been spending more on an inflation-adjusted basis. Often, that’s a sign of healthy economic demand. But consumers may be getting the short end of the stick as companies use algorithm-driven price discrimination to induce them to spend more on things they don’t necessarily want or need.

In short, consumers’ assessment of the current economic situation has been rational. They accurately report in the Conference Board survey that the business and labor outlook has been good. And they accurately report in the Michigan data that their pocketbooks were in bad shape because of inflation but are now recovering. But what about their future outlooks?

myth theory essay

Consumer confidence in future conditions

myth theory essay

The Michigan and Conference Board surveys closely overlap and tell the same story. Consumers were in an optimistic mood for roughly the first six months of Mr. Biden’s term, with both surveys usually showing above-average forward-looking numbers. Then the Delta variant and the period of extremely high inflation hit in midsummer 2021 and knocked the wind out of Mr. Biden’s promise of a rapid return to normalcy. Inflation was more persistent than economists were initially expecting, and the S&P 500 lost around a fifth of its value on an inflation-adjusted basis in 2022 .

Combined with the profound disruptions of the pandemic itself, there has been a lot of anxiety-inducing economic news for consumers. Although optimism is up in recent surveys, it’s not surprising that it’s taken some time to process everything.

There are other long-term factors pointing toward greater pessimism. For almost a quarter-century, a majority of voters have consistently thought the country is on the wrong track . There are many indications of a rise in poor mental health (and equally many hypotheses for why that’s happened). Many Americans have existential concerns about the long-term future for reasons ranging from environmental degradation to runaway artificial intelligence.

Fundamentally, Mr. Biden’s challenge is that it’s hard to persuade voters who are used to constant doomscrolling that it’s Morning in America again . The incumbency advantage seems to be declining ; it’s been 40 years since a president won re-election by a double-digit margin.

But there is good news for Mr. Biden: Voter perceptions about the economy are not just vibes — in fact, consumer sentiment has tracked the objective data well. That data, particularly the pocketbook numbers that were the weak point before, has begun to improve, and that leaves the door open for a potential second Biden term.

It will be a close call. His numbers against Mr. Trump haven’t improved yet — in fact, they’ve gotten slightly worse lately — even as consumers’ mood has become more buoyant. His age is still a big concern for voters (yes, Mr. Trump is old, too), and the Democratic coalition is bitterly divided over the Israel-Hamas war and other issues.

Polls show that Mr. Biden has lost the most ground with lower-income voters — even as the robust labor market has helped the working class. His campaign, however, has said it will replay its 2020 strategy, with a heavy emphasis on Mr. Trump and a lesser one on the economy. It’s plausible that this is a mistake. Mr. Trump is no longer the incumbent president. And working-class Democrats don’t necessarily have the instinctual dislike for Mr. Trump that college-educated progressives do.

Still, we ought not to take an overly deterministic view of the relationship between the economy and elections. With any sort of presidential election forecast, we’re limited in making reliable inferences because of small sample sizes. This is only the 12th presidential election, for instance, since Michigan began regularly publishing its consumer numbers. We’re in dangerous territory where models sometimes fail. No previous presidential incumbent has been as old as Mr. Biden — and no major-party challenger has been as old as Mr. Trump.

If Mr. Biden loses, it may be because the relationship between the economy and perceptions of the president has weakened — not because voters are mistaking a good economy for a bad one.

Graphics by Sara Chodosh .

Nate Silver, the founder and former editor of FiveThirtyEight and the author of the forthcoming book “ On the Edge : The Art of Risking Everything,” writes the newsletter Silver Bulletin .

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

Follow the New York Times Opinion section on Facebook , Instagram , TikTok , X and Threads .

An earlier version of a graphic accompanying this article on the home page misstated the year of a sharp drop in consumer confidence. It was 2020, not 2018.

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Former Harvard Medical School dean claims ‘anti-racism' and ‘social justice jargon’ is hurting future doctors

F ormer Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey Flier has spoken out against the current implementation of "anti-racism" policies in healthcare training and suggested "potentially harmful" versions of social justice threaten to compromise patient care.

In an essay published by The Free Press this week, Flier recounted his initial interest in working with colleagues to combat racism and bias in medicine and his eagerness to read a 2020 paper from his alma mater's educational leaders addressing such problems.

He was disappointed to find that the final publication lacked significant analysis and instead offered "dramatic" and "unsupported" generalizations about inherent racism in medical education and practice.

Flier concluded the paper denigrated people's accomplishments and focused on the race of physicians and patients rather than a commitment to providing exceptional and equal care for all.

CRITICAL RACE THEORY-RELATED IDEAS FOUND IN PROGRAMS AT 108 OF 155 TOP AMERICAN MEDICAL SCHOOLS

Last January, the former dean logged on to Zoom for Mount Sinai's "Chats for Change Workshop," where he said he was immediately inundated with explanations about "Whiteness" and "White supremacy." He said the administrator leading the session continued by asking questions that "undermined the necessity of collecting unbiased evidence."

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According to his essay, questions included: "Why is anything that is documented or published valued more highly than other forms of knowledge and communication?" and "Are clinical trials more valuable than patient's clinical experiences?"

"The session failed to stimulate productive discussion about racism and responses to it that might improve health or enable transformative change. Instead, it advanced a highly questionable ideology about White supremacy and its relationship to modern medicine," Flier said.

Things only degraded in a second online workshop titled "Anti-Racist Transformation in Medical Education," he claimed. When Flier suggested the term "anti-racist," the school's Racism and Bias Initiative discussion leader responded it was simply a term for opposition to racism and "anyone with a terminal degree should know what." The leader also said the program was not about "encouraging pointless discussion" about the term's meaning.

CRITICAL RACE THEORY TAUGHT AT MANY OF AMERICA’S 50 MOST ELITE PRIVATE K-12 SCHOOLS, ACCORDING TO NEW STUDY

Flier disagreed and stressed that unclear terms can lead to unclear solutions.

"If we can't agree on what race, racism, diversity, inclusion, and equity actually mean, the initiatives based on these terms are likely to be ineffective," he said. "But the message of the sessions I attended was clear: much like a devotee accepting holy writ, we were to forgo questions and simply embrace the doctrine, even without knowing what it means."

Following the anti-racism workshop, Flier submitted a paper to Academic Medicine which outlined some of his concerns. It was rejected two days later with no peer review and without explanation.

The former Harvard Medical School dean noted that in 2021, the institution announced a task force to review racism in medical education and create responses to mitigate harm. While the school revealed a 72-page report had been completed, it was never made public.

Flier found this surprising. During his time as dean, report conclusions were published by appointed committees and faculty would later have an opportunity via meetings and town halls.

WASHINGTON U LECTURER WARNS MEDICAL STUDENTS NOT TO ‘DEBATE’ HER ON ‘SYSTEMIC OPPRESSION': 'SHUT THAT' DOWN

"In conversations with faculty members at both schools, concerns about the approach to anti-racism, not unique to me, are typically met with requests to discuss the topic 'off the record' and without attribution," he said. "Faculty concerned about the ideological capture of anti-racism initiatives are reluctant to express this openly for fear they will be labeled insufficiently anti-racist, causing reputational damage they prefer not to risk."

Flier surmised that students and trainees were being imprinted with "contestable ideological notions" and bringing less rigor to issues of racism versus other serious topics.

The goal, he said, should not be "performative discussions" and "empty virtue signaling" but better healthcare outcomes for all people. He also warned that a drift from evidence-based practices towards "ideological dogma" would only lead to graduates proficient in "social justice jargon" rather than expert care delivery.

"Sadly, I fear that diluting rigor and precision with ideological agendas will degrade the quality of medical education," he added. "In a rush to embed vague, contestable, and potentially harmful versions of social justice into medical education, we risk compromising the very foundation of medical training, and ultimately, patient care."

Harvard Medical School did not return Fox News Digital's request for comment. 

Original article source: Former Harvard Medical School dean claims ‘anti-racism' and ‘social justice jargon’ is hurting future doctors

Jeffrey S. Flier became the 21st Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Harvard University on September 1, 2007. His term as Dean ended in 2016 after nine years. Harvard Medical School/Screenshot/iStock

New GOP conspiracy theory: Babies are getting abortions!

State senator bill eigel claims a "1-year-old could get an abortion" if missouri allows a rape exception to its ban, by amanda marcotte.

There are many questions that immediately crop to mind upon hearing state Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Mo., claim that a "1-year-old could get an abortion under" a Democratic proposal for rape and incest exceptions in the state's near-total abortion ban. 

The first, of course, is whether Eigel is ignorant enough of human biology to believe babies can get pregnant. It's a possibility, putting his claims in the echelon of idiotic beliefs Republicans have about reproduction, from claiming a woman can't get pregnant from "legitimate rape" to arguing it's "abortion" to avoid getting pregnant in the first place. Then there's the second question: Assuming that babies could get pregnant, is Eigel arguing that it would be a good thing to force a baby to deliver another, barely smaller baby?

On the latter question, we do have an answer, though it is stomach-churning: Yes. Eigel's stance is that forced childbirth in very small children (and, though impossible, babies) is a good thing. Nor is he alone in this view.  Earlier this month, Republicans in the Missouri state Senate voted down the proposal to allow rape and incest victims access to abortion. In the process, Republicans repeatedly argued that being forced to give birth to a rapist's child is good for a rape victim, regardless of how young they are. 

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The entire debate was a stark reminder of the misogyny that drives the modern GOP. It's why the party is lining up eagerly behind Donald Trump, a man who a jury recently found liable for sexual assault , a crime he's been caught bragging about on tape . Republicans increasingly have no limits when it comes to tolerating sexualized violence against girls and women. 

"You’re OK with forced birth of a child being raped, right?" Democratic state Sen. Doug Beck asked Eigel . 

Earlier this month, Republicans in the Missouri state Senate voted down the proposal to allow rape and incest victims access to abortion.

Eigel insisted, "I don’t support the institutions of rape or of incest," though his loud, continued support of Trump tells another story. But on the topic of forced childbirth for rape victims, he was blunt: It's for the best . He falsely claimed allowing child rape victims to get abortions would lead them to commit suicide, saying, "I can't imagine Missouri will be a better place tomorrow if we have individuals inflicting abortion on kids."

Eigel speaks of abortion like it's robbing a child rape victim of a precious opportunity. Sadly, Eigel's view that it's good when small children (and apparently, babies) are forced to give birth is not a rare one in the GOP. Throughout the debate, Republicans spoke of forced childbirth as if it's a beautiful gift they're granting rape victims.  Republican state Sen. Rick Brattin, for instance, argued that being forced to give birth to a rapist's baby "may even be the greatest healing agent you need in which to recover from such an atrocity." 

In defending her belief that it's good to force rape victims to give birth, Republican state Sen. Sandy Crawford argued that "God is perfect. God does not make mistakes." She allowed that being raped might be "mentally taxing" for victims, but shrugged it off with, "Bad things happen." 

The callousness towards rape victims isn't just a failure of empathy, however. Despite the rise of the #MeToo movement within liberal and even centrist circles, for the MAGA right, it's still rape victims who are held responsible for rape. And unwanted childbirth is viewed as a sacrifice the victim should endure to redeem herself. 

When the subject shifts from imaginary pedophilia to real instances of child rape, it's Republicans who resist all efforts to relieve the suffering of the victims.

If that sounds harsh, I invite readers to revisit the CNN town hall Trump held right after a jury found him liable for sexually assaulting journalist E. Jean Carroll. Trump offered his glib denials, of course, but then immediately pivoted to basically admitting it happened — and blaming Carroll for it.

"What kind of a woman meets somebody and brings them up and within minutes you're playing hanky-panky in a dressing room?" Trump sneered. The MAGA audience roared with approval. 

The notion that rape happens because the victim "caused" the rapist to "stumble" is widespread on the Christian right. The public was reminded of this in 2022 when a 300-page report about sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention was released. It featured an almost numbing parade of stories of victims being told that they were to blame for the rape. In many cases, the victims were forced to apologize to their rapists or stand in front of the congregations to "repent" for tempting the rapist. In other cases, the church used its resources to cover up for the rape and pressured the victim to pretend it never happened. Either way, the message is clear-cut: The real victim of the rape is the rapist, who was "tempted" by a loose woman, or in many cases, a child. 

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I'm far from the first person to note that conservative rhetoric is replete with psychological projection. Put more simply, with Republicans, every accusation is a confession.  Certainly, this enthusiasm for forced childbirth on rape victims is a proof point. The MAGA right has become fond of lobbing the word "groomer" at every liberal who advocates for LGBTQ equality, free speech, or reproductive rights. The implication is that these things are all cover for the supposed liberal desire to inflict sexual violence on children. But, of course, when the subject shifts from imaginary pedophilia to real instances of child rape, it's Republicans who resist all efforts to relieve the suffering of the victims. Instead, they treat the victims like they're the real perpetrators.

Frankly, I don't think Eigel is stupid enough to believe 1-year-olds can get pregnant. I certainly doubt he sincerely thinks there are 1-year-olds picking the phone, calling the clinic, and scheduling an abortion. Instead, like many Republican conspiracy theories, it's more symbolic than literal. The newly invented myth of the abortion-getting baby is a stand-in for a larger constellation of GOP outrage over what they perceive as liberals "teaching" women and children to disobey the stringent patriarchal rules governing their behavior.

It's much like the right-wing myth that elementary school kids are using litterboxes for mysteriously sexual reasons. It's about stoking this hysterical view of what happens if liberals' ideas about women's equality and children's rights are allowed to prevail. Why, next thing you know, babies will be aborting their own babies! It's just an especially grotesque way to paint the oppressors as victims and recast actual victims as the villains. 

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of " Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself ." Follow her on Twitter  @AmandaMarcotte  and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only .

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  1. Monmouth College

    by Thomas J. Sienkewicz This essay on the theory of myth is based upon the introduction to Theories of Myth: An Annotated Bibliography (Scarecrow Press, 1998). It has been revised and adapted here for his students at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois.

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    It is the primal, emotion-laden, unmediated "language" of experience. As a consequence, for mythic consciousness there is no reflective separation of the real and the ideal; the mythic "'image' does not represent the 'thing'; it is the thing" (2:38).

  3. Archetypal Criticism

    Jung most frequently used "myth" (or "mythologem") for the narrative expression, "on the ethnological level" ( Collected 9, pt. 1: 67), of the "archetypes," which he described as patterns of psychic energy originating in the collective unconscious and finding their "most common and most normal" manifestation in dreams (8:287).

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    Myth is a type of speech defined more by its intention than its literal sense. Myth also has the character of making "itself look neutral and innocent" —it "naturalises the concept and transforms history into nature'. It deforms and dehistoricises the original connection between the signifier and the signified.

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  8. (PDF) Myth, history, and theory

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    Myth and history. Myth and history represent alternative ways of looking at the past. Defining history is hardly easier than defining myth, but a historical approach necessarily involves both establishing a chronological framework for events and comparing and contrasting rival traditions in order to produce a coherent account. The latter process, in particular, requires the presence of writing ...

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  18. Myth and structure

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  19. Creation Myths: Theories of Myths

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  20. Children, myth and storytelling: An Indigenous perspective

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